States across the country are having trouble crafting laws to control digital content without running afoul of constitutional protections on speech. And it's not just video games, though these laws have achieved the most notoriety. The state of Ohio this week found itself on the losing end of a judicial decision that struck down a state law banning all Internet transmission of content that is "harmful to minors" if the sender should know that someone on the receiving end is a minor.
Federal judge Walter Rice issued a permanent injunction against the law after pointing out the many ways that it could restrict legitimate speech between adults. The Supreme Court has already found that Internet users have reason to believe that there are minors present in every chat room, for instance; under the Ohio law, anything deemed obscene for minors that was uttered in a chat room could therefore possibly lead to prosecution.
The law was first passed in 2002 and immediately challenged by Media Coalition, a group of booksellers, newspapers, and providers of sexual health information. The judge soon granted a preliminary injunction, and the state amended the law in order to avoid several of the original problems. Despite the changes, Judge Rice still found the bill too broad when applied to the Internet, where it can be difficult or impossible to know the ages of every person that one interacts with.
Media Coalition's executive director, David Horowitz, praised the decision. "While we should have adequate legal safeguards to shield children from objectionable content," he said, "those safeguards cannot unreasonably interfere with the rights of adults to have access to materials that are legal for them."
As in several of the video game lawsuits, the state may be on the hook for attorneys' fees in this case. What makes the entire episode so galling is the fact that Ohio legislators were warned about precisely these problems when they drafted the bill. Back in 2002, when Media Coalition filed its lawsuit, co-counsel H. Louis Sirkin pointed out that the "the legislature and Governor were repeatedly informed of the unconstitutionality" of these measures, yet pressed ahead anyway.
Declan McCullagh of CNet suggests that politicians be forced to pay out of their own pockets when these sorts of avoidable costs end up being paid by taxpayers. Given that the legislators would be the ones who would need to pass such a bill, this is… unlikely, though it would certainly give legislators a good reason to proceed carefully when drafting new legislation.
According to the Dayton Daily News, the state is still deciding whether it will attempt an appeal.
CNet has a more detailed description of the judge's reasoningMedia Coalition's original 2002 press release (PDF)The judge's decision (PDF)