W A S H I N G T O N, April 16, 2002 -- The Supreme Court today ruled that the federal government went too far in its effort to restrict pornography when it found that parts of the Child Pornography Prevention Act was unconstitutional.
In an unusual move, Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference to express his anger with the ruling.
"This morning the United States Supreme Court made our ability to prosecute those who produce and possess child pornography immeasurably more difficult," Ashcroft said.
In a 6-to-3 ruling, the court decided that a 1996 law which banned computer generated child pornography on the Internet violates the right to free speech because it was too vague and too far reaching.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the law would not only ban computer-generated child pornography on the Internet, but also movies like American Beauty where young adults are depicted as children having sex.
"The statute proscribes the visual depiction of an idea — that of teenagers engaging in sexual activity — that is a fact of modern society and has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages," Kennedy wrote.
Feeding the Desires of Pedophiles
Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer signed Kennedy's opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a separate concurring opinion that suggested future regulation of some kinds of virtual child pornography may be possible.
Writing in dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said computer-generated images "are virtually indistinguishable from real children engaged in sexually explicit conduct."
Rehnquist was joined in his opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor partially agreed with the majority and partially disagreed when she noted that the law was too broad but said a portion could be salvaged.
Some children's rights advocates argued that even computer generated images feed the sick desires of pedophiles.
"Well I'm outraged. I'm sad by the ruling, I think the courts have put pedophiles over children," said Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican.
Colby May, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, agreed. "The court's ruling today is really a sad day for moms and dads and children all across America because it makes pornographers' jobs a whole lot easier," May said.
Victory for the First Amendment
But free speech groups said that with its decision, the court showed it would defend First Amendment principles.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a press release that the majority opinion "sends a message that Congress may not overstep the boundaries the court laid out in distinguishing constitutionally protected speech from obscenity and child pornography that harms actual children."
Despite the ruling, Ashcroft vowed to continue to go after pornographers.
"We will continue to use every available resource to identify, investigate, and prosecute child pornography cases to the fullest extent of the law," Ashcroft said.