Booksellers Join Challenge to Michigan Censorship Law

New law requires booksellers to prevent any possibility that minors examine “harmful” works
A coalition of booksellers, publishers and magazine distributors has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new Michigan law that makes it a crime to allow a minor to examine a book that is “harmful to minors.” “This law would drastically alter the character of bookstores,” Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), said. “Today, bookstores are open, welcoming places that invite their customers to browse and explore the wide range of works that are available to them. This law threatens the freedom to browse freely.”

It is already illegal to sell “harmful” material to minors in Michigan and most other states. But the new Michigan law goes beyond the law of any other state by requiring booksellers to prevent any possibility that a minor can examine “harmful” works, including novels and works of non-fiction that do not contain pictures.  Violations are punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. The measure was signed into law by Governor Jennifer Granholm on November 5 and went into effect on January 1. Plaintiffs yesterday filed a motion in federal district court seeking a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the law.

Finan said the new law is unconstitutional because it would make it difficult for adults and older minors to obtain books, magazines and music that they have a First Amendment right to purchase. “If booksellers can be sent to jail for two years because a kid picks up the wrong book, they will have no choice but to protect themselves by rigidly restricting what their customers can see,” he said. Booksellers will either have to segregate “harmful” material in an “adults only” section or to wrap it in plastic. In addition, they will be forced to impose these restrictions on books and other materials that are “harmful” to the youngest minors, including romance novels, works relating to sexual education and health, photography and art books, and classic literary texts.

In addition to ABFFE, the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship, the plaintiffs are the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, six bookstores, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Freedom to Read Foundation, and the International Periodical Distributors Association.

The plaintiffs are represented by Herschel P. Fink of Honigman Miller Schwartz & Cohn LLP, in Detroit, and Michael A. Bamberger of Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal in New York.