Reconciling the PROTECT Act with the First Amendment

December
2012
Rosalind E. Bell

This Note explores the recent expansion of child pornography law and its impact on socially valuable art and film. It focuses on how the federal government regulates “virtual child pornography”—both computer-generated materials that are produced without real children and authentic images made with seemingly young adult actors. First, I trace the history of child pornography doctrine from the Supreme Court’s foundational case, New York v. Ferber, to its recent discussion of virtual child pornography in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition. I argue that modern laws and court decisions have become increasingly untethered from Ferber’s limiting interest in protecting children from physical and emotional harm. In Free Speech Coalition, the Supreme Court added a key limitation to child pornography doctrine, categorically protecting non-obscene virtual child pornography. As with all sexually themed materials, the obscenity test established in Miller v. California applies as a backstop, allowing the government to regulate material that violates community standards of decency and that lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Yet Congress’s post-Free Speech Coalition statute, the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools Against the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act, threatens to undermine the First Amendment by once again shifting focus from punishing crimes against children to preventing disturbing but nevertheless protected private thoughts. Despite United States v. Williams, a recent, narrow Supreme Court decision upholding the PROTECT Act’s pandering provision, I argue that Congress should reexamine the PROTECT Act as a whole. Looking for guidance in the Supreme Court’s foundational child pornography cases, as well as recent decisions in other First Amendment contexts, I conclude that Congress should amend the Act to comport with established doctrine.

This article appears in the December 2012 Issue: Volume 87, Number 6