Does California's Autograph Law Hinder Freedom of Speech?

With the support of consumer advocates, film studios and police chiefs, California lawmakers decided last year, without a dissenting vote, to require sellers of autographed collectibles to include a certificate authenticating the signature or face substantial financial penalties.
by | May 16, 2017 AT 12:00 PM

By Bob Egelko

With the support of consumer advocates, film studios and police chiefs, California lawmakers decided last year, without a dissenting vote, to require sellers of autographed collectibles to include a certificate authenticating the signature or face substantial financial penalties.

One group whose interests may not have been considered is comprised of independent booksellers, like the Bay Area dealer who is accusing the state in a federal lawsuit of violating freedom of speech.

The new law's requirements "create a nightmare for independent booksellers that thrive on author events and book signings," Bill Petrocelli of Mill Valley, co-owner of the Book Passage stores in San Francisco, Sausalito and Corte Madera, said after the lawsuit was filed Thursday.

Petrocelli said his stores host authors at more than 700 book-promotion events each year and sell tens of thousands of autographed books annually, at no extra charge.

People attend those events "to be exposed to new ideas, debate with authors and interact with other consumers," said attorney Anastasia Boden of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights organization that is representing Petrocelli and the bookstores pro bono. "But the new law deters, if not effectively bans, these events."

The law's author, former Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar (Los Angeles County), said Thursday she hadn't seen the lawsuit. But she said she stood by her bill and other "efforts to stop those who would rip off unsuspecting collectors."

The new law expands an earlier statute that applied only to sports memorabilia. It requires all sellers except pawnbrokers and online merchants to include a certificate declaring that the signature was authentic for any autographed item sold for $5 or more. The document also must say whether the dealer was present and identify any witness to the signing.

A seller who violates those standards can be sued for damages, plus 10 times the purchase price in penalties to the state, along with attorneys' fees and court costs.

Supporters of the law said there was evidence of forged signatures on $100 million worth of the $1 billion annual market in memorabilia nationwide. Backers of the legislation included the Consumer Federation of California, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the California Police Chiefs Association.

In Thursday's suit, lawyers for Petrocelli and Book Passage argued that the law would stifle book signing by imposing "burdensome oversight and record-keeping" requirements for no practical purpose; they said neither the bookstore nor the authors make a profit from the signing. They said the same requirements would be imposed on a private citizen who owned an autographed book and decided to sell it.

The suit seeks court orders declaring the law overly broad and barring its enforcement against the bookstores. Boden, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said legislation that would narrow the law to accomplish the same goals is pending in Sacramento, but it's not clear whether it will pass.

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle