A Brief Comment on Massachusetts’ “Child Safety” Proposal

I’ve about had it with Massachusetts.  Seriously.  I can’t buy wine on Thanksgiving or in the supermarket, happy hour drink specials are outlawed, and boy, that law about not being able to use tomatoes in clam chowder really gets me.

In all seriousness, a law proposed earlier this year really makes me angry.  From the ACLU:

Signed in April by Governor Patrick and effective June 12, the law, Chapter 74 of the Acts of 2010, imposes severe restrictions on the distribution of constitutionally protected speech on the Internet. The law could make anyone who operates a website or communicates through a listserv criminally liable for nudity or sexually related material, if the material can be considered “harmful to minors” under the law’s definition. In effect, it bans from the Internet anything that may be “harmful to minors,” including material adults have a First Amendment right to view. Violators can be fined $10,000 or sentenced to up to five years in prison, or both.

I’ve written about the slippery slope before, most recently in August to debate a point someone else had made: that “normal people” should take action, and request that their ISPs filter pornography.

Like Carol Rose, whose On Liberty column from yesterday is a must-read, I don’t take kindly to lawmakers hiding behind the guise of “protecting our children” to justify broad extensions of government power.  And that is just what this is: a broad, in fact vague restriction on anything that might be harmful to children.  Beyond the potential banning of any pornography (which I wouldn’t agree with anyway), this law could potentially ban all sorts of things: sites about marijuana, sexual health, guns, R-rated movies.  The law feels purposefully vague, and we have to question why that is.

Of course, the government lawyer has already stepped up to say that “prosecutors promise to prosecute only those cases involving ‘something more than posting to an audience that may or may not include a minor'” but is that really enough?  Just trust the government?  I don’t think so.

Fortunately, several groups have stepped up to challenge the law, among them the ACLU, of which I am a card-carrying member.  The groups have filed a suit to have the new law declared unconstitutional, an act which I fully support.  As a Massachusetts resident, I am truly concerned for the chilling effects this law could set into motion.

For more information, the ACLU has an excellent resource page set up (and of course, a Facebook group).

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