Washington — The Senate moved Monday to crack down on child pornography with a bill drawn to strengthen bans on using minors in obscene material while dealing with the Supreme Court's constitutional problems with an earlier version.
The bill, passed without dissent, was in response to a court ruling last April that struck down a 1996 law that specifically prohibited virtual child pornography. The court said banning images that only appear to depict real children engaged in sex was unconstitutionally vague and far-reaching.
Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored the new measure, which Hatch said "strikes a necessary balance" between protecting children and defending First Amendment free speech rights.
"I've worked very hard to digest the relevant legal issues and make the 'Protect Act' square with the law," he said. The bill passed 84-0.
Specifically, the bill prohibits the pandering or solicitation of anything represented to be obscene child pornography. Responding to the court ruling, it requires the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person intended others to believe the material was obscene child pornography.
The bill, which still requires House action, also plugs a loophole where pornographers could avoid prosecution by claiming that their sexually explicit material was computer-generated and involved no real children. Under an affirmative defense provision, the defendant would be required to prove that real children were not a part of the production.
It narrows the definition of "sexually explicit conduct" for prosecutions of computer-created child pornography and requires people who produce sexually explicit material to keep more extensive records so that they can prove that minors were not used.
It creates a new crime -- the use of child pornography by sexual predators to entice minors to engage in sexual activity or the production of new child pornography -- and increases penalties for child pornographers.