Texas can require age-verification on porn sites, 5th Circuit judges rule

AI SaaS

A Texas state flag blowing in the wind.

Getty Images | PA Thompson

Texas can enforce a law requiring age-verification systems on porn websites, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled Thursday. The appeals court vacated an injunction against the law’s age-verification requirement but said that Texas cannot enforce a provision requiring porn websites to “display health warnings about the effects of the consumption of pornography.”

In a 2-1 decision, judges ruled that “the age-verification requirement is rationally related to the government’s legitimate interest in preventing minors’ access to pornography. Therefore, the age-verification requirement does not violate the First Amendment.”

The Texas law was challenged by the owners of Pornhub and other adult websites and an adult-industry lobby group called the Free Speech Coalition. “We disagree strenuously with the analysis of the Court majority,” the Free Speech Coalition said. “As the dissenting opinion by Judge [Patrick] Higginbotham makes clear, this ruling violates decades of precedent from the Supreme Court.”

A US District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law in August 2023, finding that “Plaintiffs have shown that their First Amendment rights will likely be violated if the statute takes effect, and that they will suffer irreparable harm absent an injunction.”

But a few weeks later, the 5th Circuit issued a temporary stay that allowed the law to take effect in September 2023. The new ruling issued last week was on the merits of the preliminary injunction.

Court cites “girlie” magazine precedent

The 5th Circuit, generally regarded as one of the most conservative appeals courts, found that the Texas porn-site law should be reviewed on the “rational-basis” standard and not under strict scrutiny. The court panel majority pointed to Ginsberg v. New York, a 1968 Supreme Court ruling about the sale of “girlie” magazines to a 16-year-old at a lunch counter. The Supreme Court in that case upheld a New York criminal obscenity statute that prohibited the knowing sale of obscene materials to minors.

The same principle applies to the Internet, the 5th Circuit majority found. “Because it is never obvious whether an Internet user is an adult or a child, any attempt to identify the user will implicate adults in some way… To suggest protecting children would be so difficult is inconsistent with Ginsberg, where rational basis review was sufficient even though adults would presumably have to identify themselves to buy girlie magazines,” the ruling said.

As Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman wrote, the 5th Circuit “panel majority claims the 56-year-old Ginsberg opinion, which dealt with offline retailers, governs the Conlaw [constitutional law] analysis of the Texas law instead of the squarely on-point 1997 Reno v. ACLU and 2004 Ashcroft v. ACLU opinions, both of which dealt with the Internet.”

In his dissent, Judge Higginbotham said the majority’s attempts to distinguish Ginsberg from later rulings “are unconvincing.” Although “Ginsberg remains good law and indubitably recognizes the government’s power to protect children from age-inappropriate materials,” the Supreme Court “has unswervingly applied strict scrutiny to content-based regulations that limit adults’ access to protected speech,” he wrote.

The Texas law “limits access to materials that may be denied to minors but remain constitutionally protected speech for adults,” Higginbotham wrote. “It follows that the law must face strict scrutiny review because it limits adults’ access to protected speech using a content-based distinction—whether that speech is harmful to minors.”

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