Alaskan libraries and bookstores are concerned by the passing of Senate Bill 222 which proposes changes to state law to toughen human trafficking, sex offense and child pornography laws with increased jail time and broader allowances for police officers to pursue offenders. Specifically, Sean Parnell (Governor of Alaska) claimed that it would give the state's Internet Crimes Against Children unit "more tools to pursue those who view and engage in distribution of child pornography,"
After trying unsuccessfully to address concerns that this bill would infringe on first amendment rights with the governor, librarians and book store owners say they've got no choice but to sue. They argue the revised law criminalizes material adults have a constitutionally protected right to access -- literature, works of art, educational materials and any other items that may contain nudity or sexually explicit content. The way the amendment is currently written innocent people could face criminal charges including librarians and bookstore owners who stock materials that fall under these broad guidelines.
From the Alaska Dispatch article:
It's a situation in which a few small word changes may have sweeping consequences. SB 222 amended the prior censorship law, in part, by deleting the word "electronic" from references about distribution of material, and the word "visual" from references to how material is depicted. The plaintiffs believe those changes unacceptably widen the law's reach far beyond the Internet and the narrow situations -- sexual predators disseminating material to children -- that the law is meant to target.
Conceivably, a retailer selling unlawful materials to anyone under the age of 16 could end up a convicted felon, spend two years in jail, be forced to register as a sex offender, and lose their business, according to a prepared statement released by the plaintiffs' legal teams.
Alaskan librarians are concerned that the law could limit materials libraries could legally circulate including sex education materials, romance novels, fine art books, graphic novels and even best-sellers that deal with mature themes (like Stieg Larsson's popular Millennium Trilogy). The wording of this amendment makes all of the difference. Those involved in the suit against the state recognize that while protection of children is important, the bill needs to very specifically target illegal materials. Broad definitions of 'obscene materials' force libraries and other media providers to strictly moderate all of the materials they stock and post online to a point that is completely unsustainable. It is impossible to know the full content of all books, movies, music, magazines,etc that a library or book seller holds and moderating access online to block underage users is extremely difficult.
Title Wave Books and Bosco's in Anchorage, Fireside Books in Palmer, Don Douglas Photography in Juneau, the Alaska Library Association and the Alaska office of the American Civil Liberties Union are among the local plaintiffs. They are joined by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, Inc., Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Entertainment Merchants Association and the Freedom to Read Foundation, which represent member organizations throughout the United States. All of these organizations are highly deserving of our support and sweeping legislative changes like these can have wide impacts that cannot always be predicted. Being vocal about infringement on the right to access information and materials, particularly when it is couched in seemingly altruistic and 'unquestionably good' causes like protecting vulnerable children, is critically important.
For more information on what you can do to help check out the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund - a great resource for information advocates.