November 6, 2015
Louisiana indies sue state over new law that equates them with pornographers
by Simon Reichley
A united front of booksellers, civil liberty watchdogs, and independent publishers have come together to challenge Louisiana House Bill 153. The bill, which was signed into law by Governor, presidential candidate, and candid camera campaign guru Bobby Jindal, requires all websites—including those of booksellers—to verify the age of any person accessing their website in order to prevent minors from being exposed to potentially harmful content.
Garden District Book Shop and Octavia Books, both located in New Orleans, are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was brought in partnership with The Media Coalition, the ACLU and The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The bookstores argue that the law, effective as of August 1st of this year, places “severe burdens on plaintiff booksellers—and countless others who use the Internet—by requiring them to age-verify every Internet user before providing access to non-obscene material.”
According to Rep. Timothy Burns, R-Mandeville, one of the bill’s key authors, the new statute is meant to target pornography sites and stores. But the lawsuit counters that the scope of the bill’s language is too broad, and forces them to use complicated, expensive, and ultimately ineffectual age verification of its users.
The clause in question states:
A.(1) Any person or entity in Louisiana that publishes material harmful to minors on the Internet shall, prior to permitting access to the material, require any person attempting to access the material to electronically acknowledge and attest that the person seeking to access the material is eighteen years of age or older.
But as an Associated Press wire story observes, “[I]f a store like Octavia Books, an intellectual mainstay in Uptown New Orleans, was required to place an age-verification button on its website, minors would then be stopped from searching their online book stacks.”
In a report from Shelf Awareness, the Garden District Book Shop owner Britton Trice explains, “Since we cannot possibly review the one million plus titles on our website, the law would force us to ask every customer visiting our website whether he or she is an adult. That would have a strong and chilling effect on our business because it would make us appear to be an adult bookstore.”
Octavia Books co-owner Tom Lowenburg says it could be worse than that. “The law is a serious threat to the First Amendment rights of booksellers and our customers,” he says. “Our job is to get customers the books they want, but this law makes it impossible by forcing us to block access to 16- and 17-year-olds who want to browse Young Adult novels and other works that may be inappropriate for younger minors.”
Simon Reichley is assistant to the publishers and office manager at Melville House.