Supreme Court upholds child pornography ban

November 30, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court salvaged a federal law against child pornography yesterday but gave it a narrow reading that may make it harder for prosecutors to win convictions.

A federal appeals court had struck down the law, saying Congress had not narrowed its scope enough to save it under the Constitution. The law, dating to 1977, makes it a crime to send or receive sexually explicit items that show youths who are under age 18.

But the Supreme Court disagreed, voting 7-2 to uphold the law as well as the conviction of a Los Angeles dealer in those materials.

Voicing concern that the law might sweep too broadly, threatening innocent people who are not intentionally dealing in child pornography -- such as a Federal Express delivery agent -- the court ruled that prosecutors must prove that defendants actually knew that a performer under age 18 was shown.

Anti-pornography groups had told the court that prosecutors have difficulty obtaining evidence that a peddler knew that minors depicted were, in fact, minors. They had urged the court to rule that, so long as the shipped items include minors, the distributor can be convicted merely for being reckless in failing to check to see how old they were.

When the court added to the burden of prosecutors, one of those groups, the National Law Center for Children and Families, said the decision "may be a major setback in the war against child pornography." Noting that the court had upheld the view of the law suggested by the Clinton administration, the center said the administration's lawyer "has succeeded in his effort to weaken child pornography laws."

Another anti-pornography leader, however, applauded the court for upholding the law's constitutionality. Patrick Trueman praised the ruling as a "substantial victory" because it reinstated the law.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the dissenting opinion for himself and Justice Clarence Thomas, denounced the majority for acting to "save a single conviction by putting in place a relatively toothless child pornography law . . . and by rendering congressional strengthening of that law more difficult."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who wrote the majority opinion, declared that the anti-pornography law might run into constitutional trouble if it was read literally to criminalize anyone who shipped or received a child pornography item without knowing that he or she was dealing with something illegal.

The decision reinstated the conviction of a Los Angeles company, X-Citement Video Inc., and the operator of that company, Rubin Gottesman, for shipping 49 videotapes that showed pornography star Traci Lords. All the tapes were made when she was under 18.

The Gottesman company was fined $100,000, and Gottesman was sentenced to a year in prison.

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