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ACLU targets Michigan Net content law

Michigan is the latest state to come under fire by free speech advocates after it outlaws online communication deemed "harmful to minors."

Michigan is the latest state to come under fire by free speech advocates after it outlawed online communication deemed "harmful to minors."

The American Civil Liberties Union filed another federal challenge to Net content restrictions to block a law signed by Michigan Gov. John Engler earlier this month. The law, which will take effect in August, makes it a felony to disseminate or display online "sexually explicit matter" to those younger than 18. Violators could face up to two years in jail and $10,000 in fines.

Supporters of such legislation say the Net makes it too easy for youngsters to explore sexually explicit content. But opponents say that by definition, "harmful to minors" laws go beyond curbing minors' access to hard-core pornography to include speech about art, literature, health care, sex education, gay and lesbian, and women's rights issue, for example.

"The law would reduce the level of discourse on the Internet to that which is appropriate to a 7-year-old," Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement.

The ACLU has prevailed in similar legal battles in New York and New Mexico. Aside from the First Amendment argument, the ACLU contends that these laws violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits states from regulating activity outside of their borders.

"Like the nation's railways and highways, the Internet is by nature an instrument of interstate commerce that should not be burdened by inconsistent state laws," Andrew Nickelhoff, and attorney working on the case, said in a statement.

The ten plaintiffs in the case say their online speech will be hindered by the law.

California marriage and family therapist Marty Klein, who runs a free Web site called SexEd.org, fears he could be prosecuted by Michigan authorities under the law--so do the AIDS Partnership of Michigan; Web Del Sol, a literature and arts forum; and Glad Day Bookshop, all of which are among those suing.

Still, pointing to 48 "harmful to minors" statutes already on the books, the Justice Department has defended similar federal laws, arguing they only apply to the Net's red-light districts, not education- or health-oriented sites, and that the plaintiffs have nothing to worry about.