In 1996, Congress changed course in its efforts to combat child pornography
when it passed a law that targeted so-called virtual child pornography — or
computer-generated images of children engaging in explicit sexual conduct. In
the past, laws had focused on the use of actual children in making, producing
and distributing child pornography.
But Congress adopted the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 — CPPA — to
address concerns about advances in computer technology that make it more
difficult for prosecutors to determine whether certain images are of an actual
child or simply realistic images of fictional children. Congress heard testimony
regarding “morphing” — where pornographers would download photographs of
children from magazines and then transform them into sexual pictures.
The CPPA defined child pornography as:
“Any visual depiction, including any photography, film, video,
picture or computer-generated image or picture … of sexually explicit conduct,
(A) the production of such visual depiction is, or, appears to be, of a
minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; (B) such visual depiction is, or,
appears to be, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; (C) such visual
depiction has been created, adapted, or modified to appear that an identifiable
minor is engaging in sexually explicit conduct; or (D) such visual depiction is
advertised, promoted, presented, described, or distributed in such a manner that
conveys the impression that the material is or contains a visual depiction of a
minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.” — 18 U.S.C. Section
The Free Speech Coalition and others challenged the law in federal court in
1997. They challenged only the two subsections that contain the “appears to be”
and “conveys the impression” clauses. The plaintiffs questioned those provisions
because they allow people to be punished even if no actual children were involved
in the creation, production or distribution of the material.
For instance, the law would theoretically punish producers of a movie that had a
youthful-looking adult movie actor playing a child in a sex scene. Furthermore,
the law would impose penalties on material that simply “conveyed the impression”
through advertising that the material contained a minor engaged in sexually
A federal district court upheld the law as a constitutional way to address
the harms associated with virtual child pornography. A divided three-judge panel
of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, in Free Speech
Coalition v. Reno, writing that “censorship through the enactment of
criminal laws intended to control an evil idea cannot satisfy the constitutional
requirements of the First Amendment.”
Meanwhile, several other federal appeals courts upheld the constitutionality
of the CPPA in criminal cases. The government appealed the case to the U.S.
Supreme Court. The Court took the case presumably to resolve the split in the
circuits over whether the law was constitutional.
Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition
On April 16, 2002, the
Supreme Court struck down both provisions at issue in Ashcroft
v. Free Speech Coalition. The high court wrote that the challenged
provisions of the CPPA prohibited material that was not obscenity or traditional
child pornography under the Court’s 1982 decision New York
v. Ferber. In Ferber, the high court defined child pornography as
expression that involved the actual sexual abuse of children in its creation.
“In contrast to the speech in Ferber, speech that itself is the record
of sexual abuse, the CPPA prohibits speech that records no crime and creates no
victims by its production,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. The
high court noted that the language of the statute was simply too broad and would
prohibit too much constitutionally protected expression, citing as possible
examples the recent award-winning movies “Traffic” and “American Beauty.”
“There is no attempt, incitement, solicitation or conspiracy,” Kennedy wrote.
“The Government has shown no more than a remote connection between speech that
might encourage thoughts or impulses and any resulting child abuse. Without a
significantly stronger, more direct connection, the Government may not prohibit
speech on the ground that it may encourage pedophiles to engage in illegal
Congress’ response: PROTECT Act
For more on Congress' attempt to outlaw virtual child pornography and the First Amendment implications
of that new law — the PROTECT Act — see the analysis by Ambika J. Biggs.
Under bill, children in pornography wouldn't have to be real