- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

RICHMOND A lawyer for the state urged a federal appeals court yesterday to revive a Virginia law that would allow prosecution of Web site operators who knowingly allow minors access to sexually explicit material.
U.S. District Judge James H. Michael Jr. of Charlottesville last year declared the law unconstitutional. He agreed with a coalition of businesses, led by Internet giant PSINet Inc., which said that the law violated the First Amendment and the Commerce Clause.
State Solicitor General William Hurd told a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the state has a compelling interest in blocking children's access to harmful materials on the Internet.
"All we ask with this law is that commercial pornographers take reasonable measures to shield children from these materials," Mr. Hurd said.
For instance, businesses could require Web surfers to provide a credit-card number to prove they are old enough to view sexually explicit pictures or text, he said.
"This is the electronic equivalent of putting the pornographic magazine behind the counter," Mr. Hurd said.
Thomas W. Kirby, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the law affects more than just porn sites. For example, a clinic that provides sex counseling for physically disabled people has materials on its Web site that might be covered by the law, he said.
"That is very important information, and it's not pornography," Mr. Kirby said.
He said that requiring identifying information, such as a credit-card number, could discourage people concerned about privacy from getting the help they need.
PSINet and the other businesses, including the publisher of Penthouse magazine, also said that the law unconstitutionally restricts out-of-state Web site operators. Mr. Kirby said that a dozen similar state laws have been overturned in federal courts.
Judge Paul V. Niemeyer questioned Mr. Kirby on what, if anything, his clients believe can be done to achieve the state's interest in protecting children.
"Have we abandoned our ability to do that just because we have an Internet? We have a need for segregating information so adults can see it and children can't," he said.
Mr. Kirby said that there are less restrictive and more effective ways for the state to accomplish its goal, including educating parents to monitor their children's computer use or install Internet filters.
Judge Niemeyer responded that children can have access to the Internet in many places outside their homes.
The court typically takes a few months to rule.

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