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
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. …