The recent controversy surrounding a Web site run by a self-described pedophile from California exemplifies what many parents call a disturbing reality. The First Amendment can protect pedophiles, even when some say children's safety is at stake.
Police and concerned parents in Los Angeles are on high alert for James McClellan, whose Web site rates places to watch children play. But officials have not been able to shut down his Web site or arrest him because he apparently hasn't broken any laws.
There are other sites that take a different approach. One is run by another self-professed pedophile who operates openly and unapologetically. The site called Sugar and Spice is specifically designed to look like a child's Web site.
The site is run by Lindsay Ashford, an American who talked to ABC News by telephone from his home in the Netherlands. He says he set up his site to attract and "teach [young girls] about having a romantic relationship with adults." He says he has never had a physical relationship with children.
Like many Web sites set up by pedophiles, it has been operating in a gray area of cyberlaw, but could be in violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act of 2003, according to cyberlaw experts consulted by ABC News. Ashford maintains he has not broken the law.
"If society wants us to abide by its laws, it has an obligation to provide us with a safe outlet where we can discuss our feelings without fear of being ostracized," he said.
But free speech arguments often fall on deaf ears in an American culture unsympathetic to pedophilia and constantly searching for legal ammunition and legislative loopholes to combat it.
Pedophile and "girllover" Web site hosts like Ashford know how to walk the line between constitutionally protected free speech and illegal child exploitation, experts say.
On his site, Ashford details how young girls can get intimately involved with adults.
"A girl and a loving adult can form a very special bond, as the adult provides experience and knowledge, and the girl provides a fresh way of seeing the world and her excitement for life. … Girllovers usually show young girls … that they love them in many different ways," he says on his site.
Ashford said the lawyers for presidential hopeful Illinois Sen. Barack Obama had threatened him when he posted a blog with pictures of the Obama family and his election predictions based on which candidate had the cutest daughter. Though he removed the pictures, Ashford said he had maintained the link to his blog entry, while his own Puellela (Latin for "little girl") sites continue to operate without interference.
But Ashford seems to acknowledge that acts he considers harmless could be illegal, and he tells his Web site visitors to keep their relationships a secret. He distinguishes between "selfish" child molesters and "girllovers," those he says are "interested in a complete relationship [with a young girl] based on mutual fulfillment," in an extensive glossary of terms he uses throughout the site.
"Because so many people think that these relationships are bad, it is not always possible to be really open about these relationships," he says on his site.
In one of the sections, Ashford lists U.S. state-by-state "ages of consent" for children to legally have sex with adults, in case, as he puts it, "you are wondering how old you have to be to touch your special friend without either of you getting into trouble." Although no formal charges have been brought against Ashford, law enforcement officials said that they have been monitoring him closely.
Some Internet law experts suggested that people like Ashford are effectively providing a service to pedophiles, doing the research for them and explaining how to have sex with a young person without violating the law.
But, pedophile Web hosts who specifically attract young visitors could be prosecuted under some relatively recent cyberlaws, said Internet lawyer Parry Aftab, who founded Wiredsafety.org, the world's largest online safety and help group.
"While free speech laws protect what pedophiles might say online, some of these sites may be running afoul of COPPA [Child Online Privacy Protection Act] violations if they ask kids under the age of 13 to communicate with them or solicit information from them," she said. Aftab is training a coalition of concerned mothers called Wiredmoms that will help in her efforts to combat child exploitation online.
Aftab said that while girllover sites are not widespread, she fears that as younger and younger children use the Internet, they will be less likely to carry the admonition "Never talk to strangers" in cyberspace. She said it can be hard for little kids to distinguish between legitimate kid social-networking sites like Club Penguin and pedophile Web sites like Ashford's.
COPPA regulations make it unlawful for an operator to collect personal information from a child, like her first and last name, if the Web site is directed at children or the operator has "actual knowledge" that he is collecting personal information from a child.
Aftab said that courts have read "collected" broadly, and said that based on information provided by Ashford, he could be in violation.
For example, the self-proclaimed girllover admitted the pink and purple colors and graphics are meant to attract young girls, including those younger than 13, to his site so he could communicate with them.
He said that the main heart graphic on the site is a logo used by many girllovers, and he has made the images available for young girls to download so they can post them or wear them "if they want to."
He said he has received "both negative and positive e-mail responses," and that up until recently, he offered an advice column where young girls could submit questions to him about their sexuality.
Ashford even told ABC News that he has exchanged e-mail with a 12-year-old who told him that she couldn't believe that he could find a body of a girl her age to be attractive.
"Since I wrote back to her, we have actually maintained contact over the past five years so I suppose I made a favorable impression," he said.
But this kind of communication may have broken the COPPA law, Aftab told ABC News.
Because of Ashford's admittedly repeated cybercontact with this girl, Aftab said that he would have had to obtain written parental permission or he would be breaking the law, because consent is waived only if the online contact information collected from a child is used to respond directly to the child on a "one-time basis" and is not used to recontact with the minor.
Another legal option for shutting down a pedophile site is if the site's name and design encourage kids to go to a site that is deemed harmful. The Truth in Domain Names Act of 2003 says that "Whoever knowingly uses a misleading domain name with the intent to deceive a minor into viewing material that is harmful to minors on the Internet shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 4 years, or both."
Finally, there could also be legal recourse in intellectual property law that convicts Web administrators who use registered trademarks without permission. Ashford said he has already been contacted by one ice cream maker that accused him of trademark infringement with his heart icon. While pedophiles might be forced to simply take down copyrighted photographs or logos, heftier judgements could put them out of business, legal experts said.
The FBI established an Innocent Images initiative years before Web site operators like McClellan and Ashford came into the media spotlight, but most of its operations target pedophiles who are involved in trafficking of physical child exploitation, like the distribution and sale of child pornography, said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman.
In these cases where First Amendment rights seem to safeguard pedophiles who haven't been convicted of any crimes, the FBI takes action only against those who "cross the line."
This means that many Web sites that blatantly support pedophilia exist and thrive on the Internet without any legal ramifications -- as do some U.S.-born pedophiles, like Ashford, who have moved overseas, where age of consent laws are far more liberal than in the United States.
Although Ashford has argued that because his Web site domain is based in the Netherlands, the police can't touch him, legal experts say law enforcement could shut a site like this with cooperation from foreign police or by proving that he's made minimum contact with the states, from an American e-mail address to a U.S. bank account.
Still, actual enforcement is often difficult.
And with men like Ashford, who seemed to delight in legal doublespeak, that can be a tough pill to swallow for many people.
Ashford insisted to ABC News that he never had sex with a minor, but he said that "If I were to break the law, I'd risk not only incarceration, but also the immense emotional turmoil the child who loves me would feel when I am taken away, and the pain I'd feel knowing that she might be put into therapy, and reprogram to convince her that what happened was wrong or bad."
As concerned parents form grass-roots activist groups to combat sex offenders through law reform and education, pedophiles continue to point to the unfairness that "those who haven't broken the law must live in a perpetual state of fear."
Lora Corsen, a Charlotte, N.C., mother, started working with child advocacy groups after she says her daughters were abused. She has no sympathy for that professed feeling of fear.
"I would want to go castrate [these guys]," she said. "I'm sickened and horrified by some of these sites and don't even want my 18-year-old daughter to see them."