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.