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Senate votes 84-0 for tougher child-porn law

By The Associated Press

02.25.03

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WASHINGTON — Not a senator dissented as the Senate sent to the House legislation seeking to give prosecutors powerful new tools to fight child pornographers.

The measure would make it harder for producers of computer-generated child pornography to evade prosecution. It also creates a new type of crime with which those who would entice minors into sexual activity could be charged, increases penalties and requires greater proof from pornographers that they are not using children.

"We have a compelling interest in protecting our children from harm," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sponsored the bill with the panel's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont. "The 'Protect Act' strikes a necessary balance between this goal and the First Amendment," Hatch said.

The Senate bill, passed yesterday on an 84-0 vote, grew out of a Supreme Court ruling last April, Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, that struck down most of a 1996 law to ban virtual child pornography. The court, in its 6-3 decision, said the law was unconstitutionally vague and overreaching because it prohibited images that only appeared to depict children engaged in sex.

The Hatch-Leahy bill was written with that decision in mind, and the Bush administration said it strongly supported the revisions. Passage "would be an important step in protecting children from abuse by ensuring effective child pornography prosecutions," a White House statement said.

There was no indication how quickly the measure would be taken up in the House.

Specifically, the bill would prohibit the pandering or solicitation of anything represented to be obscene child pornography. Responding to the court ruling, the legislation would require the government to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person intended others to believe the material was obscene child pornography.

The bill also plugs a loophole through which pornographers could avoid prosecution by claiming that their sexually explicit material was computer-generated and involved no real children. Under an affirmative-defense provision, the defendant would be required to prove that real children were not a part of the production.

It narrows the definition of "sexually explicit conduct" for prosecutions of computer-created child pornography and requires people who produce sexually explicit material to keep more extensive records so that they can prove that minors were not used in its making.

It creates a new type of crime: the use of child pornography by sexual predators to entice minors to engage in sexual activity or the production of new child pornography.

Leahy said he still worried that some provisions of the bill would be challenged in court. "The last thing we want to do is to create years of legal limbo for our nation's children," he said.

Leahy mentioned language that would allow prosecution of anyone who presented a movie that was intended to cause another person to believe that a minor was engaged in sexually explicit conduct. By that definition, he said, a theater presenting the movies "Romeo and Juliet" or "American Beauty" would be guilty of a felony.

Bill Lyon of the Free Speech Coalition, an adult entertainment trade group that challenged the 1996 law, said the Hatch-Leahy bill appeared "much more confined to the specific area of child pornography." The original bill, he said, "went way beyond protecting kids and was really a covert attempt to destroy the entire adult entertainment industry."

The Senate bill is S. 151.

Related

Supreme Court strikes down ban on virtual child porn
Justices rule 6-3 that the First Amendment protects pornography or other sexual images that only appear to depict real children engaged in sex.  04.16.02

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