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Federal judge strikes down Vermont child-porn law

By The Associated Press

04.23.02

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MONTPELIER, Vt. — A court has blocked the state from enforcing a 2-year-old law that was designed to ban transmission of child pornography.

U.S. District Judge Garvan Murtha said in his decision last week that the law, passed in 2000 and amended last year, too broadly restricts indecent speech that is protected under the Constitution.

Murtha ruled the law invalid "because it broadly restricts indecent — though constitutionally protected — speech by adults in an attempt to restrict that speech from reaching minors."

No cases have been prosecuted under the law, said William Griffin, the chief assistant attorney general, who argued the case for Vermont. He said he was disappointed with the ruling and the state might appeal.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Shelton, Conn., Sexual Health Network Inc., and other groups, including the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, sued the state in February 2001. The groups said in their suit that Vermont's new law, aimed at preventing the distribution of child pornography, was too broad and would allow authorities to censor anything deemed offensive to minors.

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and several other groups were later dropped from the case after the judge said they failed to prove they had standing.

But the ACLU and the Sexual Health Network Inc., a for-profit corporation that provides information about sex through, among other means, the Internet, prevailed. This week Murtha granted the two their request for an injunction blocking enforcement of the law.

The law gives Vermont jurisdiction over material on a computer anywhere that is deemed to be offensive to minors. It makes exceptions for schools, museums, and public libraries, and for employees of those places who are doing work that serves their educational purposes.

In its arguments, the ACLU said Vermont law already regulated the possession of child pornography, and prohibited the use of the Internet to entice children into committing sexual acts.

"The state's need to protect minors can be effectively addressed by two other statutes that don't regulate the content of legal adult speech," David Putter, a Montpelier lawyer who argued the case for the ACLU, said on April 19.

The ACLU had also argued that the law was too broad.

"This case is about legitimate valuable information that is being prohibited on the basis that it might be harmful to some minors," Putter said.

And the ACLU also claimed the law was unconstitutional because it violated the Commerce Clause, which limits state regulation of commerce if it impedes free trade in the nation. Murtha noted that the Vermont law could apply to commerce that takes place entirely outside the state.

"The law forces every speaker on the Internet in every state or community in the United States to abide by Vermont's standards, even if the online speech would not be found 'harmful to minors' in any other location," he wrote in his decision.

Earlier last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned major parts of a federal child pornography law enacted in 1996 on free-speech grounds, saying two provisions of the law were overly broad and unconstitutional.

Previous

ACLU sues Vermont over Internet child-porn law
Federal suit claims law ‘imposes severe content-based restrictions on the availability, display and dissemination of constitutionally-protected speech.’  02.12.01

Related

Supreme Court strikes down ban on virtual child porn
Justices rule 6-3 that the First Amendment protects pornography or other sexual images that only appear to depict real children engaged in sex.  04.16.02

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