Media Coalition Executive Director David Horowitz Explains Group’s Impact on Booksellers

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Protecting booksellers has long been a focus of Media Coalition, an organization that defends the First Amendment rights of media and entertainment trade association members, including those of the American Booksellers Association. Since 1973, Media Coalition has aided retailers, libraries, and distributors of books, magazines, music, films, and video games by monitoring legislation, filing legal challenges to unconstitutional laws, and educating policymakers and the public on issues of media censorship.

Led by Executive Director David Horowitz, Media Coalition works to monitor national and state legislation in order to protect the rights of booksellers, publishers, librarians, and other sectors of the media to produce and distribute books, magazines, and other materials, thereby safeguarding the public’s right to access the broadest range of information, opinion, and entertainment.

Over the past four decades, the organization has brought dozens of lawsuits to protect the rights of booksellers and other media manufacturers and sellers. Most recently, it has helped establish a body of law barring restrictions for speech online.

Booksellers have always been a core part of the coalition’s efforts. They have served as plaintiffs in lawsuits, testified against legislation, and provided grass roots to support the First Amendment. “In my experience, booksellers have a deep philosophical commitment born out of their experiences on the frontlines of censorship,” said Horowitz. “They have always been particularly vulnerable to the threats of censorship because they are located in a community so it is much easier for a district attorney or county prosecutor to arrest them.” 

Media Coalition Executive Director David Horowitz

Media Coalition’s latest legal challenge was filed on Wednesday, November 4. In the action, Garden District Book Shop, Octavia Books, and ABA, together with other plaintiffs, are opposing a new Louisiana law that requires website owners — including bookstores — to age-verify every visitor to their sites before providing access to non-obscene material that could be deemed “harmful to minors.” The new law creates a tremendous burden on booksellers, said Horowitz, and puts them in the position of either preventing older minors from accessing material they have a right to access or violating the law.

In the course of a year, Media Coalition may review 1,000 to 1,200 bills and take action on about 10 percent of them, Horowitz said. In addition to filing legal challenges and reaching out to booksellers to serve as plaintiffs in these lawsuits, Media Coalition invites organizations from other industries to sign onto amicus briefs in order to show a united front among its members, regardless of whether bookstores, movie production companies, or magazine publishers would be most affected by the new law.

Media Coalition’s work is guided by a board of directors composed of representatives from its member organizations: American Booksellers for Free Expression Group at ABA, Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Entertainment Merchants Association, Entertainment Software Association, Freedom to Read Foundation, Motion Picture Association of America, and Recording Industry Association of America.

Horowitz, who succeeded ABFE’s Chris Finan as Media Coalition executive director in 1998, works with the organization’s other staff member, Communications Coordinator Kris Anne Bonifacio. Their legal work has been handled for more than 35 years by Michael Bamberger of the law firm Dentons US LLP, who, along with his partner Richard Zuckerman, is Media Coalition’s general counsel.

Last month, in an effort to broaden its financial support for defending free speech, Media Coalition created the Media Coalition Foundation, a tax-exempt organization that enables individuals and other entities to make tax-deductible contributions to help support the expensive legal work to protect First Amendment rights.

“[Contributing to the foundation] allows an individual to say they believe in the cause and want to help further the kind of educational and legal work that Media Coalition has done, and will continue to do,” said Horowitz. “And since the foundation is a 501(c)(3), they can take a tax deduction for their contribution.”

Recent successful legal efforts by Media Coalition include a 2014 memo in opposition to Alabama House Bill 39, which would have imposed a 10 percent tax on books with any sexual content and an additional 40 percent sales tax on any book, magazine, sound recording, or other material deemed harmful to minors.

Another recent victory is a lawsuit filed in September 2014 on behalf of Arizona booksellers and other media organizations, which challenged the constitutionally of a law that made it a crime to publish an image of another person in a state of nudity or engaged in sexual activity without the consent of that person.

In that successful suit, Antigone Books vs. Horne, attorneys Bamberger and Zuckerman argued that the law was unconstitutional because of the wide range of images the law would ban, including historical ones like the “Napalm Girl” photograph, which shows a naked Vietnamese girl running after a napalm attack; newsworthy images such as those of prisoners in Abu Ghraib; and artistic images from renowned photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe. “There are a lot of classic historical and artistic pictures where a bookseller wouldn’t have any knowledge of whether there was consent, so the law was a real threat,” Horowitz said.

Media Coalition has also played an important role in First Amendment cases brought by other organizations. In 2002, it filed a friend of the court brief in the Colorado Supreme Court to support the Tattered Cover Book Store’s fight against a search warrant that sought information about the books purchased by a customer. The Supreme Court quashed the search warrant in a unanimous decision that set an important legal precedent protecting reader privacy in the state.

Media Coalition was founded in June 1973, when, in its ruling in the case of Miller v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court established a three-part definition of obscenity as the standard for judging the legality of sexually explicit material. Later that month, trade associations representing different media industries, including the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the International Periodical Distributors Association, came together to create Media Coalition.

“Acting as a coalition allows the broad range of our members to more successfully defend a specific segment of the media, whether that is bookstores or movie theaters or video game companies,” said Horowitz. “Even as they are defending the rights of other parts of the media, they protect their own interests in the sense that if violent video games are banned, it opens the door to make the same content illegal in a movie, music, or a book.”

“There is that interest,” added Horowitz, “and there is the broader principle: that it is better to hang together than hang separately. The media is stronger in defending their First Amendment rights in one voice.”