This week, the Colorado House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of H.B. 1078, a bill that would make it illegal to allow a minor access to any material considered "harmful to minors." The bill has members of the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association (MPBA) up in arms because, MPBA contends, the bill is vague, would be impossible to uphold, and could place severe restrictions on the availability of constitutionally protected materials. Similar laws in Michigan and Arkansas are being challenged by booksellers, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the Association of American Publishers, the Freedom to Read Foundation and others. MPBA is hoping to get the bill voted down at the Senate level.
"What's at stake in the fight over the Colorado bill -- and in the lawsuits challenging Arkansas and Michigan display laws -- is the right of adults to browse freely in bookstores for books and magazines that are protected by the First Amendment," said ABFFE President Chris Finan. "To prohibit the display of material that may be 'harmful to minors' would turn bookstores into cultural deserts."
Even prior to the House vote this week, H.B. 1078 had stirred up controversy. On Friday, January 23, after a heated debate, the Colorado House of Representatives voted to remove a measure in the bill that would have banned the display of materials considered harmful to minors, as reported by the Denver Post. With the measure removed, the House voted 49-15 in favor of the bill.
Nonetheless, booksellers want the whole bill voted down, said Lisa Knudsen, MPBA's executive director, because the bill would require merchants to prevent minors from browsing "harmful" materials. "Does that mean the bookseller has to peruse the aisles to make sure [minors] are not looking in a book that is harmful?" she said. "Then there's somehow needing to know what's in every book -- it's impossible."
Pat Steadman, a lobbyist for MPBA, echoed Knudsen sentiments. "Merchants cannot know all the materials in their store," he said. "It is an impossible standard to hold merchants to, knowing what's in every magazine, DVD, CD, book, and then to determine what's harmful to minors."
Moreover, Steadman noted that the term "harmful to minors" is "not readily definable. There are different opinions as to what is harmful
. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions."
Knudsen said that the bill could ultimately force a bookseller to put "harmful" materials in a separate section of the store.
It is expected that H.B. 1078 could come up for vote in the Senate sometime in February. --David Grogan