- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s district attorneys are dropping their bid to preserve a criminal law that requires online booksellers, publishers and other website owners to electronically verify customers’ ages before providing access to material that could be deemed harmful to children.

A court filing Monday says the district attorneys are no longer contesting the American Civil Liberties Union’s efforts to have the 2015 statute declared unconstitutional. The filing says they’re engaging in settlement talks to resolve the ACLU’s lawsuit and reach an agreement on legal fees and court costs.

U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson in Baton Rouge blocked enforcement of the law in April, saying its “vagueness” would cause a “chill on protected speech.”

“A possible consequence of the chill caused by (the law) is to drive protected speech from the marketplace of ideas on the Internet,” the judge wrote as he granted a preliminary injunction requested by ACLU attorneys.

District attorneys from the state’s 42 judicial districts opposed the ACLU’s lawsuit. The plaintiffs that challenged the law include the Garden District Book Shop and Octavia Books LLC in New Orleans and the publisher of Antigravity magazine.

Their lawsuit claimed the law would require booksellers to age-verify every Internet user “before providing access to non-obscene material that could be deemed harmful to any minor.”

“It would have made it almost impossible for us to maintain a website,” Octavia Books co-owner Tom Lowenburg said Tuesday. “It’s hard to operate a business today without a website.”

Esha Bhandari, a New York City-based staff attorney for the ACLU, and a spokeswoman for Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office declined to comment on Monday’s court filing. Landry’s office represents the district attorneys.

Website owners faced fines of up to $10,000 for not complying with the law. Its age-verification requirement didn’t apply to Internet service providers or “any bona fide news or public interest broadcast, website, video, report, or event.”

ACLU attorneys argued that the law imposes unconstitutional, overly broad restrictions on anyone who wants to distribute material over the Internet. And they questioned whether it could have any practical effect on children’s access to online pornography, or other potentially harmful material, since the law only applied to material published in Louisiana.

Former State Rep. Tim Burns, a Mandeville Republican who sponsored the legislation, has said the statute was intended to protect children from pornography. He compared the law’s age verification requirements to ones that already apply to companies marketing and selling alcohol or tobacco products.

“Children’s use of pornography is hitting epidemic proportions and is becoming a real problem,” Burns said during a telephone interview in April. “It’s just a shame that the smallest level (requirements) I could think of wouldn’t hold constitutional muster.”

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