US court upholds Texas law mandating age verification for online porn

FILE PHOTO: Texas' governor, Abbott, is pictured in 2023

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) -A federal appeals court has upheld a Texas law mandating that pornography websites verify that their users are adults, though it struck down a part of the law requiring them to display health warnings about their content.

The 2-1 decision from the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late on Thursday overturned a lower court ruling blocking the law, which had been challenged in court by pornography producers.

Adult industry group Free Speech Coalition, which is spearheading the lawsuit, said in a statement that it "strenuously" disagrees with the ruling and is considering its next steps.

The office of Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was filed in August after Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed the law in June. The law applies to online publishers whose content is more than one-third "sexual material harmful to minors" and requires them to verify age using government-issued ID or some other method using "public or private transactional data."

U.S. District Judge David Ezra in Austin, Texas, blocked the law in a preliminary ruling on Aug. 31, the day before it was to take effect. He ruled that the law chilled adults' access to free speech protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by requiring them to identify themselves when they used the sites. He said there were other ways of stopping children from accessing pornography, like content filters controlled by parents.

The plaintiffs appealed, and the 5th Circuit put Ezra's order on hold while it considered the appeal, allowing Texas to begin enforcing the law in November. The state last month sued Canada-based Aylo Global Entertainment, which operates and other leading adult websites, for allegedly violating the law.

Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, writing for the majority on Thursday, said online age verification was equivalent to requiring in-person age verification to buy pornographic magazines, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Treating it differently "implies that the invention of the Internet somehow reduced the scope of the state's ability to protect children," he wrote.

Smith, who was joined by Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, affirmed Ezra's ruling blocking part of the law requiring websites to warn that pornography was addictive and harmed mental health. He wrote that compelling the plaintiffs to make statements they disagree with violated their free-speech rights.

Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham, in a dissent, agreed with the lower court ruling. All three judges were appointed by Republican presidents.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi, Matthew Lewis and Richard Chang)