Reporting A Story or Breaking the Law?

By Kirtley, Jane | American Journalism Review, May 1999 | Go to article overview
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Reporting A Story or Breaking the Law?

Kirtley, Jane, American Journalism Review

A freelance writer faces jail time for receiving child pornography.

Contrary to popular belief in some journalistic circles, the First Amendment is not a license to break the law. Reporters who trespass, wiretap or violate other laws that apply to the public generally aren't immune from prosecution simply because they were gathering news at the time. The U.S. Supreme Court has said so repeatedly.

The government lawyers prosecuting freelance reporter Lawrence C. Matthews in federal court in Greenbelt, Maryland, relied on this principle to assert that Matthews violated the federal law forbidding trafficking in child pornography on the Internet. But they took the maxim a step further, contending that Matthews, 55, should be forbidden to argue at trial that he traded sexually explicit images of minors as research for a story.

Unfortunately, presiding U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. bought the government's argument that the First Amendment was irrelevant to this case and could not be used as a defense. Either Matthews had received and transmitted child pornography, or he had not. If he had, he broke the law, and his motivation for doing so simply did not figure into the analysis of the case, Williams ruled.

And although "hesitant to give news gathering tips," the judge suggested that Matthews could have legally obtained similar information by studying public records of child pornography prosecutions and by interviewing victims and convicts. These resources "would give at least as much insight into the scope of the problem as the reporter's own transactions on his home computer," Williams wrote in June.

Rather than submit to what would amount to a sham trial, Matthews pleaded guilty in July to the pornography charges. In March he was fined $4,000 and sentenced to 18 months in prison, the minimum time period under the federal sentencing guidelines. His lawyer, Beth M. Farber, filed an appeal with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.

Probably no one but Matthews himself knows what he was up to when he started swapping kiddie porn under the name Mr. Mature. Although he had prepared a series in 1995 for WTOP-AM radio in Washington on the availability of child pornography on the Internet, Matthews was a freelance journalist the following year when he conversed online with undercover agents pretending to be young teenagers. Members of the FBI task force who raided his home in December 1996 found explicit images in deleted files on his computer hard drive.

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Reporting A Story or Breaking the Law?


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