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Archive for Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Court upholds child porn law

May 20, 2008

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— The Supreme Court gave prosecutors a powerful tool Monday to attack the spread of child pornography online, ruling that people who send messages over the computer offering or seeking sexual images of children can be sent to prison, even when no such pornography exists.

The 7-2 ruling, which upheld a five-year-old law, rejected the claim that such messages are protected as free speech.

"This will be a big help," said Patrick Trueman, a Virginia lawyer who led the U.S. Justice Department's anti-obscenity unit during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. "You don't have to prove the underlying material is illegal. The criminal offense is the speech that offers to sell or trade in illegal material."

Congress passed a law in 2003 making it crime to exchange online messages about "any material or purported material" that would cause "another to believe" it depicts a minor engaged in sex, whether "actual or simulated." Violations call for at least five years and as many as 20 years in prison.

The fate of this law remained in doubt until Monday because of legal challenges. Two years ago, a U.S. appeals court in Atlanta ruled the law unconstitutional because it was overly broad. It could apply, in theory, to a grandfather who sends an e-mail entitled "Good pics of kids in bed" to describe a photo of sleeping toddlers, the appellate judges said. Other critics said the law could ensnare people who tout a Hollywood movie that contains simulated sex scenes.

In Monday's opinion, the Supreme Court dismissed those objections as "fanciful hypotheticals" and upheld the law.

"Child pornography harms and debases the most defenseless of our citizens," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "We hold that offers to provide or requests to obtain child pornography are categorically excluded from the First Amendment."

Scalia knocked down each of the objections to the new measure.

No prosecutor or jury would believe that a grandfather was offering children engaged in "sexually explicit conduct" when he sends an e-mail describing "kids in bed," Scalia said. "The statute has no application ... where the material at issue is a harmless picture of a child in a bathtub," he added.

People who advertise or sell movies are not in danger either. "We think it is implausible that a reputable distributor of Hollywood movies, such as Amazon.com, believes that one of these films contains actual children engaging in actual or simulated sex on camera," he said.

Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

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