New York Governor George Pataki has quietly signed a controversial new law that makes it a felony to transmit indecent online material to minors.
The legislation amends a New York law that already prohibits the distribution of indecent material to teenagers under the age of 17 through other means, such as photographs, movies, books, and magazines. The measure, similar to the federal Communications Decency Act, received bipartisan support and passed both houses of the state Legislature by overwhelming margins before being signed last week.
"Law enforcement around the nation are becoming increasingly alarmed at the growing use of computer networks and other communications by pedophiles," according to a summary of the bill, known bureaucratically as S210E-A 11154. "Several cases have come to light wherein a pedophile has traveled clear across the country to have sexual relations with a minor initially contacted and engaged through various computer networks."
The law, which takes effect November 1, already is provoking wide protests from civil rights groups. The New York Civil Liberties Union said today that will try to get the bill rescinded.
The bill was attacked on Internet newsgroups yesterday. "The sponsors characterized this bill to prevent pedophiles from using the Net to entrap victims, and I think that's misleading," said Robert Perry, acting legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The solution to whatever problem they are trying to solve is unconstitutional."
But today the governor's office defended the law. "We have every confidence that this is a constitutional piece of legislation," Chris Chichester, a spokesman for the governor, said. "The information age has a disturbing darkside. Put simply, many pedophiles are now only a few keystrokes away from our children and we are concerned about that."
The law covers indecent material that is "harmful to minors" and depict nudity, sexual contact, or sado-masochism. The new "Class E" felony is punishable by up to four years in state prison.
There are several potential defenses, however. Cases could be mitigated if the transmitter "made a reasonable effort to ascertain the true age of the minor" or if he or she "took reasonable steps to restrict or prevent access by minors."
The New York law is similar to the federal Communications Decency Act, which has been rejected as unconsitutional by a three-judge panel in Philadelphia. The ruling is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As a result of the legal wrangling over the CDA, it is unclear whether the New York law can go into effect in November as scheduled. Equally unclear is how the law would be enforced within the state while for actions taking place on a medium that crosses all geographic boundaries.
"It seems to raise fundamental problems about regulation," Perry said. "The Internet crosses boundaries of states and even countries."
Pataki spokespan Chichester declined to comment what impact the court's recent rejection of the CDA will have on the New York law.
Other states have enacted online regulations, but none is as strict as New York's law. In Virginia, for example, state employees are prohibited from viewing sexually explicit material online during work hours.
The New York Civil Liberties Union fought the bill as it wound its way through the state Legislature. "The proposed law is sweeping in scope, restricting the free flow of information available to users on the Internet and other online networks," the group said in August 28 letter to Pataki. "As a consequence, the bill prevents adults from exchanging information on a wide range of socially valuable issues."
The bill was sponsored by Senator William Sears, a Republican, and Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, a Democrat. The bill passed on a vote of 57 to 0 in the Senate and 144 to 5 in the Assembly.