Civil Liberties

How Do You Know When a Kid's Interest in Sex Is Prurient?


Indiana booksellers are worried about a new state law that requires anyone who sells "sexually explicit materials" to pay a $250 fee and register with the secretary of state so he can be tracked by local officials. In addition to books, magazines, and videos intended for "the stimulation of the human genital organs," the targeted material includes anything deemed "harmful to minors." The latter category is nebulous and potentially wide, defined elsewhere in the Indiana code as material that "describes or represents, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse"; "appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors"; "is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for… minors"; and "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."

An Indiana bookstore owner suggests that definition, depending on whom you ask, could cover "just about any coming-of-age novel and books on health, hygiene, and human sexuality." Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, agrees that the law sweeps more broadly than its authors and supporters (who had in mind businesses that specialize in pornography) anticipated:

The way we read this bill, if you stock a single book with sexual content, even a novel or a book about sex education, you will have to register as a business that sells sexually explicit material….This is just outrageous from our standpoint, and we believe it is a violation of the First Amendment.

A co-sponsor of the law, state Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford), tells the Indianapolis Star the booksellers are overreacting. He notes that the law does not cover "a person who sells sexually explicit materials on June 30, 2008," so existing booksellers need not register as smut peddlers. Unless they move to a new location. Or change their inventory.

[Thanks to Nicolas Martin for the tip.]