American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression v. Coakley

A coalition of organizations and local booksellers filed suit on July 13, 2010, to block a broad Massachusetts censorship law banning constitutionally protected speech on the Internet for topics including contraception and pregnancy, sexual health, literature, and art.

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

Since there is no way for websites to determine the age of an Internet browser and there is no way to block Internet users from Massachusetts regardless of the location the website originates from, the law threatened Internet users nationwide and even worldwide. The suit sought to have the law declared unconstitutional and void on its face, and to enjoin the state from enforcing it, on the basis of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and the Constitution's Commerce Clause.

In October 2010, U.S. District Judge Rya W. Zobel granted a preliminary injunction against the law. On April 11, 2011, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law an amendment, effective immediately, to address the constitutional flaws in the existing law.

Plaintiffs in the suit against state attorney general Martha Coakley and Massachusetts district attorneys were the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Harvard Book Store, the Photographic Resource Center, Porter Square Books, and licensed marriage and family therapist Marty Klein.

News Releases

4.12.11

Free speech groups applaud amendment to 2010 law to remove restrictions on Internet content

10.27.10

Federal District Court Grants Preliminary Injunction Against Online Censorship Law

7.13.10

Local Booksellers, National Trade Associations, ACLU, and Others Sue to Block Internet Censorship Law

Podcast

Civil Liberties Minute: Harmful to Minors?

What's wrong with a state law that makes it a crime to use the Internet to distribute sexual material or nudity that the law defines as "harmful to minors"? Listen to the Civil Liberties Minute to find out.

Social Media

10.19.10

Boston.com's "On Liberty" Blog: Internet censorship is not the answer (written by ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director, Carol Rose)

If you use Facebook, follow this case by "liking" our page Stop Online Censorship in Massachusetts.

Select Media Coverage

4.14.11

Massachusetts finally fixes "harmful to minors" Internet law
Ars Technica

10.27.10

Judge grants injunction vs new Mass. obscenity law
Associated Press

Judge realizes: on the Internet, no one can tell you're a kid
Ars Technica

10.19.10

Groups challenge Internet obscenity law
MSNBC

7.13.10

Booksellers Sue State Over Internet Obscenity Law
WBUR

New Massachusetts law extends censorship to IM, e-mail, Web
Ars Technica

Activists challenge law on sending lewd messages to minors
Boston Globe

Legal Documents

Memorandum of Decision

Reply Memorandum in Further Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction

Defendants' Memorandum in Opposition to Motion for Preliminary Injunction

Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction

Complaint