AUGUSTA — State lawmakers met Thursday to discuss possible changes to a law that seeks to protect teenagers from predatory marketing, but has been challenged on constitutional grounds.
Legislative leaders asked the Judiciary Committee to review “An Act to Prevent Predatory Marketing Practices Against Minors,” which prohibits Web sites and other entities from collecting health-related information for marketing purposes from anyone younger than 18 without parental consent.
Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, said she sponsored the bill because she has concerns about teenagers who fill out questionnaires online that reveal personal information.
Companies can then use that information to target teenagers to sell products, she said. “Kids are just being absolutely bombarded with marketing,” she said. “It is brainwashing.”
Critics say the law has many unintended consequences, from preventing health insurance companies from doing risk assessments online with teens, prohibiting colleges from sending information to prospective students, and making it difficult for teens to get information about obesity and anorexia.
Even before it went into effect in September, groups representing colleges, newspapers and Web sites filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging the law violates free-speech rights protected by the First Amendment and is pre-empted by existing federal law.
In response, Attorney General Janet Mills filed a brief saying she shared some of the concerns raised in the suit and would not enforce the law.
The lawsuit was dismissed with the court finding that plaintiffs established the likelihood that the law is too broad and violates the First Amendment, according to the order issued by U.S. District Court Justice John Woodcock.
In his order, Woodcock acknowledged the Legislature’s intention to reconsider the law.
That reconsideration has triggered a major reaction from dozens of groups, more than 40 of which submitted written testimony to the Judiciary Committee.
Among the groups were Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, University of Maine System and NetChoice, which represents Web companies such as Yahoo!, AOL and Expedia.
Mills told the committee it must determine which specific marketing activities it wants to prohibit. As currently written, she said the law restricts the First Amendment rights of minors age 14 to 17.
A federal law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act already restricts Web sites from collecting personal information from children younger than 13 without parental consent, according to Mills’ office.
“My concern also was the statute flies in the face of seven or eight other state statutes that do allow minors access to health information,” she said.
Mills said she and others tried to rewrite the statute to address the constitutional concerns, but were unable to.
The committee will meet again today to decide whether or how to fix the law, said House Chairman Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick.
Supporters say they hope something can be left in place to accomplish the original intent of the law — protecting teens from aggressive marketing.
Ann Woloson, of Belgrade, the mother of daughters ages 11 and 16, showed the committee art supplies she received in the mail as a gift for filling out a questionnaire aimed at teens on a growth hormone Web site.
Woloson, executive director of Prescription Policy Choices, said despite their best efforts, parents cannot always closely monitor the activities of their children online.
“To me, it seems no different than the child predator standing at the side of the road offering candy,” she said.