Court Protects Free Speech in Alaska

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The Federal District Court in Anchorage, Alaska, has permanently barred enforcement of an Alaska statute that violates the First Amendment right of free speech, saying it threatened to reduce all speech on the Internet “to only what is fit for children.”

Last August, booksellers, librarians, members of Media Coalition, including the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and others filed suit to block Section 11.61.128 of the Alaska Statutes, which would have made anyone who operates a website criminally liable for posting, selling, or loaning material deemed “harmful to minors.”

In ruling against Alaska Senate Bill 222, which would have enacted Section 11.61.128, Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline held, “There are no reasonable technological means that enable a speaker on the Internet to ascertain the actual age of persons who access their communications. Individuals who fear the possibility of a minor receiving speech intended for an adult may refrain from exercising their right to free speech at all — an unacceptable result.”

Booksellers involved in the suit were Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska, and Title Wave Books and Bosco’s, both in Anchorage.

“We are delighted by Judge Beistline’s decision and grateful for the cooperation of the three Alaska booksellers who joined in challenging the law,” said ABFFE President Chris Finan.

 “The judge recognized the clear violation of the First Amendment rights of all citizens posed by this overbroad statute,” said Michael Bamberger of SNR Denton US LLP, general counsel to Media Coalition and lead counsel for plaintiffs. “Plaintiffs agree with the Court that other Alaska laws already address the important interest in protecting children.”

Before the Alaska legislature enacted the bill, Media Coalition had pointed out its constitutional defects and offered to work with the legislature to draft a bill that would provide further protections for minors without violating the First Amendment. 

Other plaintiffs in the suit were Don Douglas Photography; the Alaska Library Association; the ACLU of Alaska; and the Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Entertainment Merchants Association, and Freedom to Read Foundation, which are all members of Media Coalition.

SB 222 was signed in May 2010 by Gov. Sean Parnell. A preliminary injunction against the statute was granted in October 2010. The papers in the matter, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, et al. v Sullivan, 3:10-cv-0193-RRB, can be found on Media Coalition’s website.