WASHINGTON—House Republicans were livid. When the Supreme Court last month invalidated most of a 1996 law against the pornographic use of images that "appear to be" of minors ("Images have consequences," WORLD, May 4), GOP lawmakers vowed to take action.
"You can't imagine the outrage we felt over here," Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana told WORLD. Within two weeks, Attorney General John Ashcroft was brandishing new, more narrowly tailored legislation that might pass the court's scrutiny.
That bill, the Child Obscenity and Pornography Prevention Act of 2002, is on a very fast track in the House of Representatives. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security Subcommittee, introduced the bill on April 30, and aides to Mr. Smith and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay expect the bill to hit the House floor this week. The speed is coming in response to word that U.S. attorneys, since April's high court ruling, are already feeling intimidated from pressing their pending pornography cases.
Some pro-family activists are worried that the pace is too fast. Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, praised House members for reacting, "but it's better to make sure that it's as effective and challenge-proof as possible, rather than just fast." In meetings with congressional and Justice Department officials, Mrs. LaRue and others said that the Smith bill might set the Supreme Court decision in concrete. The bill says if a defendant in a child-porn case can prove his pictures are computer-generated images of a child instead of real photographs, there's no victim and no crime.
Pat Trueman, a former chief of the Justice Department's child-exploitation and obscenity section in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, thinks Congress should allow more time to consult with federal prosecutors and see how the high court ruling affects prosecutions before passing a bill. "If juries will not convict now without proof of an actual child in the images, if you find a lot of acquittals, then you've built a record that prosecutions are in jeopardy. Several justices were concerned that their softness on virtual material would interfere with prosecutions on real material."
With the advent of photo-manipulating software like Adobe Photoshop, it's becoming virtually impossible to distinguish between virtual images, real images, or real images that are computer-manipulated. The Smith bill originally proposed the creation of a comprehensive national database for law-enforcement officials to see if "virtual" depictions of children were actually altered real pictures. But concerned about the privacy of children who've already been victimized, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) successfully moved to strike that provision from the bill at a subcommittee hearing.
Other House members are lining up with bills to make the Internet a safer destination for children:
- Rep. Pence last week introduced a bill that would punish those who use misleading domain names to attract children to pornographic Internet sites with up to $250,000 in fines or two years in jail. He argues that innocuous domain names echoing popular children's movies and toys can help pedophiles lure children.
- Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has introduced the "Child Modeling Exploitation Prevention Act" to prohibit a brand new practice: Internet sites that offer pay-per-view downloads of girls of elementary-school age in provocative poses and clothing, like bikinis.
- Rep. John Shimkus (R.-Ill.) is offering a bill to create a "dot-kids" Internet domain, a "green light" area within the U.S. Internet country code that will contain only content that is appropriate for children under the age of 13, analogous to the creation of a children's section within a library.
Victims of child pornography aren't limited to those in the pictures. Pedophiles usually use the pictures to desensitize and attract children. In pushing his bill, Rep. Smith has noted studies that show the vast majority of convicted child molesters are habitual pornography users. Their impact is felt heavily, since the National Institute of Mental Health found the typical sex offender molests an average of 117 youngsters, most of whom do not report the offense.
The newly developing negative side of the online world has Rep. Pence sounding a note of caution. "While the Internet is a vast resource of useful information, there's also a large part of it that's a sewer. Turning our kids loose where these sorts of predatory practices are being used is something we hope to put a dent in."