March 7, 2007 — -- It's enough to make any father lash out in anger.
A self-professed pedophile posts photos of your young daughters on his Web site, where he describes them as an "angelic duo."
It happened to Senator Barack Obama whose presidential campaign threatened legal action against Lindsay Ashford, a self-professed pedophile who handicapped the 2008 campaign by judging the "cuteness" of several presidential candidates' underage daughters and granddaughters. Attorneys who specialize in free speech say the campaign's handling of the issues raises some questions about the candidate's stance on civil rights.
"Individuals can make comments about the candidates and the candidates' children without running afoul of the law until someone crosses the line into actual or criminal activity," said Lawrence G. Walters, a lawyer who has handled many cases involving pornography and the Internet. "For better or worse, pedophiles retain their free speech rights. If he's a professed pedophile and if he says, 'Let's try to find these kids,' then it could be in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy, then he may be liable."
No matter how distasteful the content of the website, Walters and Jonathan Katz, another First Amendment lawyer, were surprised that the Obama campaign had threatened legal action in this case.
"If Obama knows that his lawyer is doing this, then that's one reason not to vote for him," Katz said. "These are clear free speech issues."
On Feb. 26, Obama's counsel, Robert Bauer, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Ashford, asserting that the use of the photos "is not simply defamatory, but is a criminal act," and that the Illinois senator reserved the right to "pursue civil remedies and criminal referral."
Bauer also demanded that the photos and any references to Obama and his family, including a link to the candidate's site, be removed immediately.
Ashford responded by taking down the photos and sending a letter to Bauer, asserting his First Amendment rights and vowing that he had no intention of removing references to Obama and his family from the site.
Bauer did not return calls for comment. A spokesman for the Obama campaign declined to comment, explaining that the letter speaks for itself.
The article was posted in April on Ashford's Web site, where he wrote: "I have decided to make my predictions based upon what lovely First Daughter we can look forward to watching grow up for four to eight years."
The piece includes photos of the underage daughters of Obama, former Sen. John Edwards, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Virginia Sen. George Allen and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and the granddaughters of Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Vice President Dick Cheney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Although Ashford praises most of the children, he chooses Obama over Santorum in the end, based on the attractiveness of the girls. He also expresses distaste for candidates' older children, saying that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton "have serious trouble: they have adult daughters."
Ashford has a history of upsetting people with his online behavior; on his site, he describes himself as "Lover of Little Girls."
In July 2005, his Web site devoted to missing children provoked outrage among parents of the children. Because the site is legal, they couldn't take action.
"To be perfectly honest, I'm a little surprised by all this," Ashford said to ABCNEWS.com from Costa Rica, where his is traveling. "That was 10 months ago and suddenly I got this cease-and-desist letter from Obama's lawyers."
Ashford says that some online vigilantes contacted the politicians in the story, but that none of them responded.
"It's odd that he's the only one who is making a fuss about it, perhaps because he's now running for president and doesn't want anything to make him tumble along the way."
Although he admits that he can understand why someone might be annoyed or irritated by his post, Ashford remains unrepentant about the nature of his article.
"It was an attempt at political satire," he said. "I thought it was such rubbish for them to be making such substantive predictions about the election that I thought I would take a completely frivolous method. It was a good-natured poke in the eye."
Ashford says that his intentions were purely innocent. "I didn't write anything more than that they're pretty. I didn't write that I want to take their knickers off. … There's not even a hint that I wanted to stalk them or anything like that."
That may end up being his strongest defense. Several First Amendment lawyers said that it was doubtful that Bauer or the Obama campaign would prevail in court.
"The big concern I would have is that if in the abstract, you don't allow free speech for these kinds of people, that's something to really think about," Walters said. "When we're looking at the platform of the campaign, who else doesn't get free speech rights? You have to think through the implications."
Despite the threat, Ashford is still supporting Obama. "I'm not going to change my support for him based on this issue," he said.