How a reporter landed in jail

May 05, 1998|By Charles Levendosky

LARRY Matthews is an award-winning investigative reporter with 30 years of experience in radio and television in the Washington, D.C., area. A radio documentary Mr. Matthews did concerning Vietnam veterans in 1983 awarded him the prestigious Peabody Broadcasting Award. Now he's under federal grand jury indictment for researching a story about child prostitution on the Internet.

According to federal prosecutors, Mr. Matthews violated the federal child pornography act by attempting to gather news. The FBI claims that reporters cannot seek out sexual depictions of children on the Internet -- even if they are writing stories about the availability of such material.

In 1995, Mr. Matthews produced a three-part series about the existence and availability of child pornography on the Internet for WTOP Radio in Washington.

Investigative work

During his research for this series, Mr. Matthews "began to suspect that many of the persons online claiming to be underage girls or adults willing to prostitute children were actually law enforcement officers," according to his motion to dismiss the 15-count criminal indictment.

Mr. Matthews wanted to investigate the role law enforcement plays in chat rooms and sexual materials on the Internet.

Mr. Matthews' instincts may be right. In April, an Illinois woman filed a complaint against police officers for soliciting her 17-year-old daughter in a chat room on the Internet. Officers claim they were lured into a trap.

Other incidents of police officers soliciting sexual favors from minors on the Internet have become public in recent months.

During the late 1980s, the federal government conducted a sting operation against those who might purchase child pornography in print. During Project Looking Glass, the U.S. Customs and the U.S. Postal Service became the major distributor of child pornography in this country.

These two federal agencies created phony magazine outlets, polling groups and organizations in order to entice porn customers. According to criminologist Cecil E. Greek, federal agents posed as pedophiles, sexually interested young men or girls, pen pals or sympathetic hedonists. They sent out catalogs, questionnaires, sexual surveys and even lipstick-stained letters to lure responses. Thousands of individuals were bombarded with this material for as long as three years.

Keith Jacobson, a 58-year-old farmer in Nebraska, was one of the people targeted. After 29 months of solicitations, he finally ordered a magazine, "Boys Who Love Boys." Postal officials were waiting for him at his post office box when he came to pick it up. The U.S. Supreme Court called the government's antics entrapment -- and overturned Mr. Jacobson's conviction. The court's ruling in 1992 effectively ended Project Looking Glass.

If Mr. Matthews had been allowed to continue his investigations, he might have uncovered a similar federal sting operation, this time in cyberspace -- and exposed it. Perhaps that's the real reason for his indictment.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that a federal law enforcement agency is involved in chat room sexual solicitations as part of cyberspace sting operation against child molesters. But the demons are in the details, and Mr. Matthews might have been able to dig too deeply.

Ironically, Mr. Matthews alerted the FBI to his investigations.

During his Internet searches Mr. Matthews came into contact with a person who offered to prostitute his or her daughters to him. Mr. Matthews was so disturbed by the incident that he contacted the FBI and gave an agent the information he had obtained. Subsequently, Mr. Matthews had several meetings with the agent.

Not long afterward, the FBI obtained a search warrant that authorized the seizure of Mr. Matthews' books, magazines, computer discs and any other material related to his cyberporn research.

He was charged with 15 felony counts of dealing with child pornography.

The federal government's approach to Internet news gathering: "You click on child porn, you look at it, you're a criminal. News or not, no exceptions."

That approach ignores the fact that it was the news media that alerted Congress to the relationship between child porn and prostitution -- so that it could create the forerunner of the law under which Mr. Matthews now finds himself charged.

Then-Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a Maryland Republican and co-sponsor of the original child pornography legislation, lauded the role of the media in breaking the news about the problem and said on the floor of the Senate, "It deserves the gratitude of the American people."

The government's sweeping interpretation of the child pornography law means that anyone who sits on a jury and looks at a series of incriminating photographs in a child porn case and passes them to the next juror could be charged with a violation of the law. So could the judge, so could law enforcement officials. "No exceptions" means just that. Of course, that's ludicrous.

Freedom of the press presupposes the freedom to gather information.

It will be a very dangerous route for the courts to take if they decide that gathering the news, however unseemly that news may be, can land a reporter in jail.

Charles Levendosky is editorial page editor of the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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