BATON ROUGE, La. — An adult entertainment group and others in the industry have filed a federal lawsuit challenging Louisiana laws requiring sexually explicit websites to make users electronically verify that they are at least 18 years old.
The suit filed late Tuesday in federal court in New Orleans challenges laws passed in 2022 and this year that subject such websites to damage lawsuits and state civil penalties as high as $5,000 a day if they fail to verify users’ ages – by requiring the use of state-issued digitized driver’s licenses or other methods.
The laws require age verification for users of sites if as much as one-third of their content is deemed harmful to minors.
The suit says the laws could chill free speech because the terms are so vague that providers wouldn’t be able to decipher “material harmful to minors.”
“Because of the Acts’ vagueness, cautious operators of even non-pornographic websites must place an age-verification content wall over their entire websites if they wish to continue communicating with Louisiana audiences without risking ruinous tort liability,” the suit says.
The suit also says the law violates rights to freedom of expression and due process. It says the laws can, in effect, deny access to websites by adults who don’t have state-issued ID or are reluctant to use online verification methods because of the fear of having their information hacked.
“Showing your ID in a checkout lane is simply not the same as submitting it to a government database,” Jeffrey Sandman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a Wednesday news release.
“These laws give the state the power to harass and censor legal businesses,” said Alison Boden, executive director of Free Speech Coalition, an advocacy organization for the adult entertainment industry and the the lead plaintiff. “We, of course, support keeping minors from accessing adult content, but allowing the state to suppress certain speech by requiring invasive and burdensome systems that consumers refuse to engage with is simply state censorship.”
Louisiana was the first state to require adult websites to verify the age of those who want to view their pages. Since then other states have passed or enacted similar legislation, including Arkansas, Mississippi and Utah. However the laws have received pushback.
In addition to the Free Speech Coalition, the Louisiana plaintiffs include three providers of sexually explicit content, and a woman who resides in Louisiana but doesn’t have state ID and does not want to lose access to adult sites.
The suit seeks to have the law struck down as unconstitutional. On Wednesday, the plaintiffs asked that the court block enforcement of the law while the suit proceeds.
A similar coalition of plaintiffs organized by the Free Speech Coalition is challenging Utah’s age-verification law. The law remains on the books in the conservative Western state, where sites like PornHub have blocked access and others have contracted with third-party age-verification providers. Last month, the Free Speech Coalition asked a federal judge to put the law on hold while their lawsuit is pending.
Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office didn’t immediately respond to a Thursday afternoon request for comment. However, supporters of Louisiana’s laws say they were created to shield children from the dangers of pornography.
“I know that many of you have heard me say, ‘This isn’t your daddy’s Playboy,’ but, heck. This isn’t even the Hustler you hid underneath your bed,” said state Rep. Laurie Schlegel, the Republican who authored the age verification law, during a legislative committee hearing in April. “What we’re discussing today is hardcore pornography that is one click away from our children.”
The first verification law, providing grounds for civil lawsuits against adult websites, went into effect at the start of this year. Earlier this month legislators passed a bill, which has been signed by the governor and goes into effect in August, that will allow the state Attorney General to fine websites up to $5,000 per day.
Some adult websites, including Pornhub, have begun using LA Wallet – which can maintain a copy of a Louisiana resident’s digital driver’s license, as well as vaccination records, virtual court appearances, and hunting and fishing licenses. LA Wallet’s system simply tells a third-party verification company whether or not the user is at least 18 years old, The Advocate reported.
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