In May of 2010, Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell passed changes to an Alaska law to protect children and curb human trafficking. While the intent might be good, the bill that was signed is seriously flawed. Rather than cracking down on sexual predators enticing minors online, this bill goes astray and directly attacks free speech and access to information. The people most likely to break this law include those in libraries or bookstores rather than anyone actually intending any harm to minors.
The original law, AS 11.61.128(a), made distribution of any “indecent material” to anyone under 16 years old, or believed to be under 16, by computer. “Indecent material” is defined to include any depiction of real or simulated sexual penetration, lewd touching or exhibition of private areas, masturbation, sexual masochism or sadism. The update from senate bill 222 changed the law to remove the limit of how that information is distributed, now all forms of media are included. This restriction on “indecent materials” without any connection to otherwise illegal activity like enticing a minor goes astray and is unconstitutional. While no one wants their children to see graphic or harmful images, the law would not allow them access to important health information and some of the most popular teen novels. It is not the intent or main purpose of the law that anyone objects to, but the poor wording, which allows for more problems than solutions.
This bill makes it felony for a librarian or clerk in a book or video store to give anyone sixteen or younger access to materials which have any content of a sexual nature which other people think they should not have access to. The bill does not take into account minors seeking out the materials of their own free will. Curious minors could be seeking out information through books, videos or magazines simply to understand the changes and feelings they are experiencing. Those that violate the law could be convicted of a class C felony and sentenced to up to two years in prison. They would also have to register as sex offenders, business owners could be forced to forfeit their companies and careers could be ruined.
Time in jail could be the reward for a teacher, counselor at Planned Parenthood, bookseller or librarian simply allowing a minor to have access to information that they crave because others have deemed it potentially harmful. This could include nonfiction books written specifically for teens about sexuality and their health as well as some of the most popular teen novels on the market at any given time. A librarian checking out material to anyone under 16 about Michelangelo’s David could be charged with the same crime as an internet predator attempting to groom a child for sex trafficking by using explicit images or stories. Due to the constitutional questions about the law, there is currently a lawsuit on file to block the law. Members of Media Coalition, local booksellers and artists, the Alaska Library Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, filed it on July 31 2010. Now we all wait and see which how the lawsuit plays out and how it effects the choices that other states make.
Beyond the constitutional and common sense challenge of this bill are the problems with how effectual it can be. The majority of grooming for sex traffic happens via computer and cell phones now, not with books and magazines. Therefore, this change in the wording and scope of the law is not really moving the protection forward in any way. If anything it is impeding the progress law enforcement could make if more focus was placed on digital media rather than all forms of media.