"Harmful to Minors" Laws

By Dority, Barbara | The Humanist, March-April 1995 | Go to article overview

"Harmful to Minors" Laws


Dority, Barbara, The Humanist


We thought we were in the clear again, at least for another year. But after the disastrous November elections left the Republicans firmly in control of the Washington State House of Representatives and the Democrats holding onto a one seat majority in the Senate, perhaps we should have seen it coming--it being a veto override attempt on one of the most tenacious pieces of bad legislation this state has ever seen.

First Amendment activists were gratified last spring when Washington Governor Mike Lowry responded to our call to veto Senate Bill 6003. This so called Harmful to Minors/Child Protection Act is one of many such acts being proposed in various states. (Some states are dusting off "harmful to minors" legislation they've had on the books for years without a single implementation, mostly because authorities don't know how to enforce them.) The purpose of these acts is the same: to ban all manner of currently legal material that might be "harmful to minors."

We've worked for over eight years to prevent this ill conceived concept from becoming law in Washington. Through those years, the concept has remained essentially the same despite the various vehicles its single minded proponents have used to foist it upon Washington citizens. Prior to its passage last spring, the bill had been rejected many times by legislators in Olympia. It has been proposed three times through our state's initiative process. Due to the educational efforts of a broad coalition of anti censorship groups, it has failed each time to gain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

You would think that over the course of this eight year period, news organizations would have had ample opportunity to examine this story and get it right--to report in clear, concise, and accurate detail just what this act proposes to ban and what the effects are likely to be. And yet, despite all the times this legislation has surfaced in Washington state, despite all our at tempts to educate citizens about it, and despite Lowry's statement clarifying the provisions of this legislation when he vetoed it, last week's newspaper story was actually headlined "Child pornography bill vetoed by Governor Lowry" Never mind that there isn't a single word in this bill that has anything to do with child pornography!

And now the Republican controlled state legislature is attempting to over ride Lowry's veto. I realize that some bad ideas never die, but this one is a full fledged Frankenstein monster fraught with numerous constitutional and enforcement problems. It will almost surely face a legal challenge if it becomes law.

SB 6003 imposes a ban on materials which are defined as being allegedly "harmful to minors" This has nothing to do with materials in which minors appear (that is, child pornography). Nor does it target materials which are, or may be, legally obscene under the Miller standards. This legislation is aimed at non obscene materials that are now widely available. By creating a new classification of "all matter and live performances" supposedly harmful to minors (amended as those 17 years old or younger), this measure imposes impossible standards upon bookstores, video sales and rental outlets, movie theaters, any type of retail music out let (records, compact discs, and cassette tapes), and might even be applied to radio and television broadcasts.

In addition, these restrictions would apply to all live performances: plays, concerts, dance and musical recitals, street theater, and parades. Many participants in Seattle's annual Gay Pride March, for example, would be in blatant violation of this law. Obviously, it will be impossible to ensure that no person under 17 years of age views (or participates in) this event. Therefore, participants in violation of the new "harmful to minors" standards established in SB 6003 would be subject to immediate arrest.

Anyone who allowed any matter which meets SB 6003's sweeping new standards to be seen by children would face criminal penalties. …

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