Child porn ruling gets court review

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has agreed to review a decision invalidating a federal restriction on child pornography.

The justices announced March 26 they would hear arguments in U.S. v. Williams, which came to them from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The high court will not consider the case until its next term, which begins in October.

The case involves convictions of Michael Williams for possessing child pornography and promoting, or "pandering," material in a way that signals it consists of illegal child pornography. In 2004, Secret Service agents found on two computer hard drives at Williams' home more than 20 images of minors engaged in sexually explicit behavior or displaying their private parts. A Florida resident, Williams was sentenced to five years' imprisonment on both counts, with the terms to be served concurrently.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court, based in Atlanta, unanimously overturned the "pandering" conviction, saying the provision was unconstitutional on its face, being "both substantially overbroad and vague." The court, however, upheld the five-year sentence for possession of child pornography.

The "pandering" provision invalidated by the 11th Circuit was part of a 2003 law, the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act. That law included a revision of a similar section in the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court.

Members of Congress designed both measures in an effort to deal with the use of computer-generated or enhanced images that appear to be of children involved in sexually explicit acts.

The 11th Circuit said in its April 2006 opinion that the PROTECT Act's "pandering" provision still encompassed non-commercial material that deserves free-speech protection.

"Given the unique patterns of deviance inherent in those who sexually covet children and the rapidly advancing technology behind which they hide, we are not unmindful of the difficulties of striking a balance between Congress' interest in protecting children from harm with constitutional guarantees," the judges said. "However, the infirmities of the PROTECT Act pandering provision reflect a persistent disregard of time-honored and constitutionally mandated principles relating to the government's regulation of free speech and its obligation to provide criminal defendants due process."

The invalidation of the provision in the PROTECT Act is part of a series of setbacks in Congress' efforts to deal with online indecency and child pornography.

In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down the portion of the Communications Decency Act that barred the online transmission of indecent material but maintained the law's provision on obscenity. The high court also has ruled against the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 measure that targeted commercial websites that make sexually explicit material available to minors.

In a limited victory for foes of online indecency, the justices upheld in 2003 the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires public and school libraries that receive government Internet discounts to install filters on their computers to block pornography.

The final oral arguments for this term of the Supreme Court are scheduled for April 25. The justices are expected to release the last of this term's opinions by late June or early July.

BP News

Published, April 2007