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Supreme Court strikes down portions of virtual child porn law

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    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Prior Restraints         Apr 17, 2002    

Supreme Court strikes down portions of virtual child porn law

  • Justices determined in a mixed opinion that the Child Pornography Prevention Act, designed to ban simulated sex of minors, stretched too far and could affect protected images in movies and on the Internet.

The Supreme Court on April 16 struck down portions of a federal child pornography law, ruling that the First Amendment protects the graphic manipulation of images even if it makes it appear that children are engaging in sex.

The Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 expanded current federal laws barring child pornography to include not only images of actual children engaging in explicit sexual conduct but also “any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer-generated image or picture.”

But in its decision, the High Court determined that the law went to far. The decision struck down two provisions of the law outlawing visual materials that “appear to be a minor” or “conveys the impression” that a minor was involved. Parts of the law banning images using real minors had not been challenged.

“The First Amendment requires a more precise restriction,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for a 6-3 majority that agreed to strike down both of the challenged provisions as overbroad. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer joined Kennedy’s opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor agreed that the government could not outlaw making young-looking adults appear as children, giving that part of the opinion a 7-2 majority. But she sided with dissenters Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia in support of upholding the provision banning computer-generated images.

“The aim of ensuring the enforceability of our nation’s child pornography laws is a compelling one,” Rehnquist said. The law “is targeted to this aim by extending the definition of child pornography to reach computer-generated images that are virtually indistinguishable from real children engaged in sexually explicit conduct.”

The Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, challenged the law. The groups argued that the prohibition could encircle legitimate adult expression, making it a crime to depict a sex scene like those in the recent movies “Traffic” or “Lolita.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union arguing that the law was unconstitutional.

(Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition) PT

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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