High Court Allows Virtual-Child Pornography ; Citing the Distinctions between Idea and Deed, the Court Says Free Speech Covers Computer-Generated Imagery

By Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

High Court Allows Virtual-Child Pornography ; Citing the Distinctions between Idea and Deed, the Court Says Free Speech Covers Computer-Generated Imagery


Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The US Supreme Court has taken its first bold steps into the world of virtual reality, overturning an attempt by Congress to ban computer-generated images of child pornography.

In an important First Amendment decision, the nation's highest court ruled yesterday that digital images of "virtual" children engaged in sexual activity must be afforded a higher level of constitutional protection than pornography involving real children.

The 6-to-3 ruling marks a major victory for free-speech advocates, who worried that the law represented the thin edge of a wedge that could be used to justify ever-broader censorship. It is a setback to those who had argued that there is no way for viewers to differentiate between real-child pornography and virtual-child pornography and that they should be attacked legally as the same evil.

Supreme Court precedent permits the government to enact an outright ban on all pornography involving real children, in large part because it victimizes the children who are its subjects. In their action today, the justices stood by that precedent and refused to expand it to include virtual depictions on a computer screen.

"The Court's First Amendment cases draw vital distinctions between words and deeds, between ideas and conduct," Justice Anthony Kennedy writes for the majority.

In a dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist says that court's decision will make it harder for law-enforcement officials to protect children from child pornographers and pedophiles.

"The aim of ensuring the enforceability of our nation's child- pornography law is a compelling one," he says. "The [Child Pornography Protection Act] 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."

In striking down two provisions of the Child Pornography Protection Act of 1996, the court found that the law was unconstitutionally overbroad, saying it sought to censor a wide universe of speech that was neither obscene nor child-pornographic.

Bill Lyon, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association of adult businesses, supported that determination. "Our whole argument was that the law is overly broad and it was unnecessary to criminalize a visualization in which no child was sexually abused," he says.

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