As is often the case with acts of censorship, a law signed by Governor DEVAL PATRICK in April 2010 arose out of a very real concern. The state's Supreme Judicial Court had overturned the conviction of a Beverly man who sent sexually explicit messages to an undercover police officer he thought was a 13-year-old girl. The problem, the SJC ruled, was that the state's archaic laws did not cover text messages or e-mails. The new law was intended to fix that.

free speech offender Deval Patrick
But the fix itself was flawed, according to the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Photographic Resource Center, and a coalition of booksellers. Because the new law banned any electronic communication that could be considered "harmful to minors," whether it was intended to be seen by minors or not, legitimate businesses ran the risk of being shut down if they distributed e-mail newsletters advertising erotic literature.

"A lot of the book jackets have photographs of nudes, some of them deal with sexually explicit material, and we are concerned that somebody could decide that's harmful to minors and go after us," Carole Horne, general manager of the Harvard Book Store, told WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

The damage the law could do to constitutionally guaranteed free speech was so obvious that US District Court judge Rya Zobel issued a preliminary injunction last October to prevent it from being enforced. "Plaintiffs have demonstrated, without question, that the 2010 amendments . . . violate the First Amendment," she wrote.

This past spring the legislature passed, and the governor signed, a bill clarifying the law Zobel had set aside. The new law specified that sexually explicit material that could legally be viewed by adults but not minors could not be punished unless the sender had deliberately targeted minors.

As for who should be assigned responsibility for this exercise in censorship, there is plenty of blame to go around: panicked legislators; Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office drafted both last year's flawed law and this year's new, improved model; and, of course, Governor Patrick, who signed both bills.

The Muzzle goes to Patrick because the governor, as the official who signs legislation, is the last line of defense in preventing bad bills from becoming law. According to Zobel's ruling, the law's violation of the First Amendment was so clear. It should have been obvious to Patrick and his legal staff, too.

But 2010 was an election year, and it was politically expedient for Patrick to be seen as taking a stand against would-be child molesters while letting others worry about the Constitution.

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