- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

BOSTON | Internet content providers and free-speech advocates asked a federal judge to stop Massachusetts from enforcing an expansion of its obscenity law that would outlaw electronic communications that may be harmful to minors.

The content providers say the recent amendments amount to “a broad censorship law” that effectively bans from the Internet anything that may be considered “harmful to minors,” including material about contraception, pregnancy, literature and art that adults can legally view.

The groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Association of American Publishers and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, filed a federal lawsuit in July challenging the new law. U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel heard arguments Tuesday on their request for a preliminary injunction barring the state from enforcing it.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley and the state’s district attorneys are named as defendants.

The law’s supporters say it closes a loophole that led the state’s highest court earlier this year to overturn the conviction of a man accused of sending sexually explicit instant messages to someone he thought was a 13-year-old girl. In February, the Supreme Judicial Court found that the old state law that imposes criminal penalties for disseminating material harmful to minors did not cover electronic communications.

The new law was passed quickly by the state Legislature after the high court’s ruling. It added instant messages, text messages, e-mail and other electronic communications. Penalties include to up to five years in prison or a fine of as much as $10,000 for a first offense.

The content providers argue that the new law is overly broad and infringes on their First Amendment rights. They also say there is no way for them to tell how old users are or to restrict the access of minors.

Lawyers the groups wrote in court papers that the law could have been written narrowly and banned someone from sending such material “to an individual known or believed by the defendant to be a minor,” but instead broadly restricts “the dissemination on the Internet of any material which is ‘harmful to minors.’”

The content providers say 18 federal judges in five circuit courts have struck down similar laws in other states, some on First Amendment grounds.

But lawyers for Mrs. Coakley and the state’s district attorneys say the content providers have an “unreasonably broad reading” of the new law, which they say is not like the laws that were struck down in other states. The new Massachusetts law, they say, prohibits electronic communication of obscene materials only if the defendant specifically intends to direct the matter to someone under 18.

“Contrary to plaintiffs’ assertions, the statute does not regulate any protected adult-to-adult speech, nor does it criminalize the publication of harmful matter on the Internet for all to see, even with the knowledge that a minor may gain access to it,” lawyers from Mrs. Coakley’s office wrote in their legal briefs.

Free-speech advocates said they are concerned that the new law will have a chilling effect on Internet content providers.

“We are just afraid that content providers online are going to pre-emptively censor themselves to stay on the right side of the law,” said Christopher Ott, a spokesman for the ACLU of Massachusetts.