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June 25, 2002 05:59am
House OKs Rewritten Internet Child-Porn Ban
Source: Reuters
by: Andy Sullivan

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Barely two months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on "virtual" child pornography, the House of Representatives on Tuesday passed another attempt to update child-porn laws for the Internet age.

The House passed 413-8 a bill that would outlaw pornographic digital images of children, unless they were proven to be computer-generated simulations that did not portray actual underage sex.

The Supreme Court struck down a similar law on free-speech grounds in April, saying it was too broadly written and could outlaw mainstream films like "Traffic" and "Romeo and Juliet" that use adult actors to portray teenage sex.

Backers said a rewritten bill was necessary to effectively prosecute the child-pornography trade, which has migrated to the Internet over the past several years.

Without a virtual-porn ban, prosecutors must prove that child pornography seized from Web sites and computer hard drives portrays actual children, a difficult proposition once a picture has been scanned into a computer and passed around the Internet, said bill sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican.

The Supreme Court's decision has made existing child-porn cases harder to prosecute and could throw previous convictions in jeopardy, others said.

"With every passing day another pedophile escapes prosecution because of the flawed ruling of this high court," said Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley, a bill co-sponsor.

But Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, said Congress was wasting its time with another effort that would not survive a courtroom challenge.

"This bill just reiterates the mistakes in the original legislation," Scott said.

The Bush administration issued a statement supporting the bill's passage, saying it "would be an important step in protecting children from abuse by ensuring effective child pornography prosecutions."

The issue now must be taken up by the Senate, where similar but separate bills have been introduced by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Missouri Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan. A hearing is scheduled in the Judiciary Committee ( news - web sites) in the summer, a Carnahan spokesman said.

Courts Struck Down Earlier Attempts

Congress has so far had little success writing laws that limit pornography on the Internet that do not infringe on free-speech rights. Federal courts have struck down three previous attempts to regulate online smut on First Amendment grounds.

The rewritten bill, drafted by the Justice Department ( news - web sites) in response to the Supreme Court's ruling, applies only to computer images that are "indistinguishable" from child pornography, not just material that "appears to be" child porn. It does not apply to mainstream movies, cartoons, drawings or other works that are not realistic digital images.

Pornography involving prepubescent children would be outlawed entirely, "virtual" or not.

The bill would flip the burden of proof so that the defendant would be required to prove that the image was a computer-generated fake, rather than requiring prosecutors to prove that it involved real, identifiable children.

Bill sponsors said they were confident that their new bill would pass judicial review, and that without such an "affirmative defense" they would be incapable of prosecuting digital child pornography.

But Scott and Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Republican, said most child pornography could be prosecuted under existing obscenity laws. The bill still could be struck down on First Amendment grounds because it would threaten documentary filmmakers, therapists and others who use computer images for legitimate purposes, they said.

"The government may not suppress lawful speech to suppress unlawful speech," Nadler said.

The House also approved 409-3 a bill that would allow judges to require lifetime monitoring of sex offenders after they serve their prison terms.

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