Federal judge halts enforcement of Virginia Internet law

Thursday, August 10, 2000

A federal judge has stopped enforcement of a new Virginia law designed
to protect minors from “harmful” material on the Internet.

Last year, the Virginia General Assembly amended its statute
prohibiting the commercial display of materials that might harm children. The
amendments adopted by the state Legislature added the term “electronic file or
message containing an image” to the existing law.

The law had prohibited any “picture, photography, drawing, sculpture,
motion picture film” or other image that was “harmful to juveniles.”

The General Assembly passed the act on April 7, 1999, and it went into
effect the following July 1.

A group of plaintiffs, led by the Internet service provider PSINet and
the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way Foundation, challenged
the law in federal court last October. U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton
dismissed the lawsuit in November on technical grounds, finding that Gov. Jim
Gilmore and the state attorney general’s office were not appropriate defendants
because they were not responsible for enforcing the law.

The plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit against the commonwealth’s
attorneys and police chiefs for Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle
County on Dec. 15.

This week, U.S. District Judge James H. Michael Jr. granted a
preliminary injunction in PSINet v.
. If he didn’t issue an injunction, Michael wrote in his
Aug. 8 ruling, “the plaintiffs may well be left with the Hobson’s choice of
self-censorship such that all content on their websites is suitable for
children, or subjecting themselves to criminal liability in the state of

“By prohibiting all such communications that juveniles could possibly
examine or peruse, the Act necessarily eliminates access for adults as well,”
Michael wrote.

The judge determined that there were less restrictive alternatives for
protecting juveniles on the Internet.

“Less intrusive and more effective means of limiting online access by
children to adult materials are widely available to parents and other users who
wish to restrict or block access to online sites, etc., that they feel are
inappropriate,” he wrote.

“There are many voluntary options available to parents who worry about
the Internet content available to their children,” said Ralph G. Neas,
president of People for the American Way Foundation, in a news release. “The
important word missing from the language of this law is: voluntary.”

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free
Expression, said, “We are pleased that our unbroken streak of successfully
challenging state child online protection acts remains intact.” His group was
one of the plaintiffs challenging Virginia’s law.

“These laws are dangerous because they would force booksellers and
other people with Web sites to suppress material that is constitutionally
protected for adults,” Finan said. “We feel we have to challenge these laws in
every state that passes them.”

Finan says there are challenges to similar laws pending in Arizona and

David Botkins, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, told the
Associated Press yesterday that his office was reviewing the judge’s ruling and
that no decision had been made on whether to appeal.

Representatives of the governor’s office said they hadn’t seen the
ruling and declined comment when contacted by the Associated Press. The law
passed last year despite objections from Gilmore.

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