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Louisiana booksellers sue to block law that could make them verify ages online

This year, a new law in Louisiana made it a crime to distribute "material harmful to minors through the Internet" without first asking users to verify that they're 18 years old. But booksellers in the state, in a lawsuit filed today with legal help from the ACLU and a media trade group, argue that the law is so vague, it will effectively force them to put a wall in front of their entire catalogs, or else risk steep fines.

Penalty for breaking the law is fine of up to $10,000

The law, passed as House Bill 153, focuses specifically on "[d]escriptions or depictions of illicit sex or sexual immorality" sold online. An "age attestation button" — famously, the field on explicit websites asking users their ages — must be appended to sites that use explicit material. The penalty for not doing so is a fine of up to $10,000, and Louisiana also makes it a crime to lie on any attestation, the ACLU says.

Although the new law makes exceptions for "any news-gathering organization" that might have the law used against it, as well as "material that has literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors," the plaintiffs argue that the legislation will unconstitutionally restrict free speech.

For one, they say it unlawfully burdens local businesses by forcing them to either search a massive online catalog for material that may violate the law, or to place entire websites behind an age-verification wall, and bear the association with truly adult websites. They say it also groups minors together in an absurd way, lumping together material that may be appropriate for 17-year-olds but not 12-year-olds. Even the "well-meant" news-gathering clause, the groups argue, unfairly draws distinctions among speakers.

The lawsuit, filed against officials in Louisiana, asks that a district court judge find the law unconstitutional.