- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Two popular book stores in Uptown New Orleans and an alternative magazine joined Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging a brand-new Louisiana criminal statute that requires website owners to install age-verification buttons to stop minors from viewing inappropriate sexual material.

The legal challenge was filed in federal court in Baton Rouge. The plaintiffs include the Garden District Book Shop, Octavia Books LLC., and the publisher of the Antigravity Magazine, Future Crawfish Paper LLC. in Gretna.

In June, the Louisiana Legislature passed the law as a measure to stop the flow of online pornography. Under the law, online distributors must ensure that only non-minors get access to material - primarily pornography - that is “harmful to minors.” Website owners face fines of up to $10,000 for not complying.

But the suit charges that the law goes too far, requiring the plaintiffs to “age-verify every Internet user” in a way that ends up having the effect of a “widespread chill on digital speech.”

“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,” said Britton Trice, owner of Garden District Book Shop. “That would have a strong and chilling effect on our business because it would make us appear to be an adult bookstore.”

The suit was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Media Coalition, a New York-based free speech advocacy group.

The law goes after porn stores, not book stores, said state Rep. Timothy Burns, R-Mandeville, the lawmaker who drafted the bill.

“It’s pornographic content, not a romance novel” that the law is aimed at, Burns said.

He said that if businesses aren’t distributing pornography, they have nothing to fear - the law doesn’t apply to them.

“It was to target Internet pornography,” Burns said. “I doubt they have anything pornographic on their websites.”

But the plaintiffs argued that their websites are under attack by the law. They say it violates several constitutional rights, including free speech and commercial rights because Louisiana businesses would be put at a disadvantage.

And they argue the law is too broad and won’t solve the problem of the free flow of pornography on the Internet.

The suit also says the law could end up hurting minors. For instance, if 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.

It “would prevent all minors from purchasing any book at all,” the suit said. It continued: “a 15-year-old could not purchase Little House on the Prairie as a gift for her 8-year-old sister.”

The office of Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said it was reviewing the suit. But it had no comment Wednesday.

David Horowitz, the executive director of the Media Coalition, said the recently enacted law is new legal territory. The suit promises to play out as a major battle, he said.

For his part, Burns, a lawyer, said he thought the law would pass constitutional scrutiny. “I wrote it to be as least restrictive as possible on free speech.”

Other plaintiffs in the suit include the American Booksellers Association and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

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