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Children and obscene material. The issue of how to balance the free access rights of adults against the responsibility of the state to protect children is central to a case now before the US Supreme Court.

HOW far is society willing to go to protect children from exposure to possible obscene materials? Free speech and free expression - as guaranteed under the Constitution's First Amendment - have been the prime basis for shielding books, magazines, movies, and television and videotape presentations from suppression or censorship.

The United States Supreme Court has been more willing to block access of children to obscene materials than it has to limit the rights of adults to such reading and viewing matter. It has not always been clear, however, what is legally defined as obscene and what is not.

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Many states withstood constitutional challenges and criminalized the sale to children of that which is sexually explicit in content. On the other hand, states and local governments have not been successful in their efforts to forbid the sale of a book or magazine to an adult because its content may be unsuitable for children.

The issue of how to balance the free access rights of adults against the responsibility of the state to protect children is central to a case now before the US Supreme Court. A ruling is likely in the spring.

Here a portion of Virginia's criminal statute is being challenged by book and author interests as violating the First Amendment.

This 1985 provision makes it a felony for booksellers to display certain books and magazines - which may be lawfully sold to adults - where minors may read or examine them. Although this statute has been in place for more than two years, it has from the very start been entangled in legal dispute and has not yet been enforced.

Lower courts saw this law as constituting illegal censorship - rather than a shielding of youth from offensive reading matter. The US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia held that the public exhibit of books and magazines is crucial to successful adult sales - and restrictions on such display would cause economic harm to booksellers and abridge their First Amendment rights.

Further, the district court showed concern that many nonoffensive materials might fall under the net of the Virginia statute. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed.

Twenty states, several municipal jurisdictions, and several anti-pornography groups are now supporting Virginia's Supreme Court appeal. They argue that the state law is designed to protect juveniles and does not deny availability of adult materials to adults and even older youth.

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Further, it is suggested that booksellers could comply with the statute by labeling ``adult'' books, placing them in separate areas out of the view of children, or sealing them to avoid access by minors.

The American Booksellers Association, the Freedom to Read Foundation, various authors' groups, and individual authors, on the other hand, insist that the law is unconstitutional and harmful to business, and that it fails to provide adequate alternatives of adult access.

Leanne Katz, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, insists that the Virginia law is so broad and vague that it would exclude books on ``sex education and best sellers.''

``We're talking about normal books that have sex in them,'' she says. ``We're not talking about opaque covers on sex magazines.''

Jerry Kirk, president of the National Coalition Against Pornography, disagrees. He stresses that this ordinance isn't meant to censor unobjectionable books and magazines. ``The Supreme Court says we have the right to protect the quality of life in the community,'' he adds. ``These materials should be in places where [only] adults can get them freely.''

The outcome of this case - Commonwealth of Virginia v. American Booksellers Association Inc. - ``could well determine the character of materials on display racks across the country,'' writes Stephen W. Gard, a professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Professor Gard, in analyzing the dispute for the American Bar Association's Preview publication, points out that 48 states have similar, but not identical, statutes.

A Thursday column

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