WASHINGTON-- Legislation restricting--but not banning--computer-generated child pornography has unanimously passed the Senate and is headed to the House, where it may face opposition.
Senate Bill 151, approved Monday, is intended to uphold freedom of speech while punishing child pornographers. The bill, called the Protect Act, forbids the use of child pornography to lure a child to sexual activity as well as the sale or trade of child pornography. It also toughens penalties for child pornographers.
A central concern was the definition of virtual child porn, which was completely banned in a 1996 law overturned last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. That law was ruled "overbroad," and the court said it could result in censoring works like Romeo and Juliet or American Beauty. Congress could not agree on a new ban last session.
The Senate bill narrows the definition to obscene depictions of a minor in sexually explicit conduct. The defendant has the burden of proving computer images, rather than real children, were used in questionable materials.
"There is an increasing effort to manipulate images and hide behind the defense that it is not a real child," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who supports the bill. "It is of vital importance that the Congress acts and acts quickly."The center operates a cyber-tip line that accepts reports of online enticements.
"In light of the constraints that the [Supreme] Court laid out, the Senate bill is a dramatic step forward," Allen adds. "Does it go as far as we would like it to go? No."Despite the Senate's unanimous support, the bill could encounter opposition in the House of Representatives. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Florida, co-chairs the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children and has expressed concern that virtual child pornography could encourage pedophiles.
"The...Act strikes a necessary balance between this goal [of protecting children from harm] and the First Amendment," says Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, a co-sponsor of the bill, says it is not perfect and could still be ruled unconstitutional. However, he supported the effort, saying, "Our children deserve more than a press conference on this issue. They deserve a law that will last."