Texas' highest criminal court has struck down a state law banning sexually explicit Internet communications between an adult and minor, saying the statute violated free speech protections.
The 2005 law prohibited adults from engaging a minor in sexually explicit online communication with the intent of sexual gratification. The third-degree felony was punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that prosecutors argued the law was intended to target "grooming," in which predators befriend children online and earn their trust before engaging in sexually explicit conversations, often with the goal of an in-person meeting.
Authorities said that without the ban on sexually explicit communication, "perverts will be free to bombard our children with salacious emails and text messages, and parents and law enforcement would be unable to stop it."
But in a unanimous ruling Wednesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that children in Texas are protected by other laws that have passed constitutional scrutiny, including statutes banning solicitation, obscenity, harassment and the distribution of materials harmful to minors.
"It may protect children from suspected sexual predators before they ever express any intent to commit illegal sexual acts, but it prohibits the dissemination of a vast array of constitutionally protected speech and materials," Judge Cathy Cochran wrote in the opinion for the nine-member court.
Cochran acknowledged the state has a well-established interest in protecting children from sexual predators.
But the Texas law was not narrowly written, she wrote, instead covering "a whole cornucopia of `titillating talk' or `dirty talk"' -- including sexually explicit literature such as "Lolita," "50 Shades of Grey," "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida."
Other sexually explicit TV shows and performances also were improperly covered by the law, including Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl and Miley Cyrus's twerking during the MTV Video Music Awards in August, the opinion said.
A companion law criminalizing the sexual solicitation of minors was not affected by Wednesday's ruling.
In its ruling, the court dismissed an indictment against a Harris County man whose trial was delayed while he challenged the law. John Christopher Lo had been accused in 2010 of sending sexually explicit text messages to a student he met while serving as choir director in the Clear Creek school district in suburban Houston.