The Supreme Court today upheld a strict new federal law that makes it a crime to send messages over the computer that offer or seek child pornography, even when no such pornography exists.
The 7-2 ruling gives prosecutors a powerful weapon to go after those who talk about child pornography online. It also appears to take away a defense for those who say the material they were discussing involves computer images, not depictions of real children engaged in sex.
The high court overturned a decision by a U.S. appeals court in Atlanta that said the new law was too broad and violated free-speech rights.
Speaking for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the law can punish an “outright liar” who offers illegal material as well as the truthful seller.
“We hold that offers to provide or requests to obtain child pornography are categorically excluded from the 1st Amendment,” he said.
Scalia dismissed “fancy hypotheticals” that raised alarms that the anti-child pornography law could apply to mainstream Hollywood movies. No advertiser or distributor “believes that one of these films contains actual children engaging in actual or simulated sex on camera,” he said.
Scalia also rejected the claim that the law could apply to someone who offers “a harmless picture of a child in a bathtub.” To be charged with a crime, the sender “must believe” the purported material is sexual in nature, he said.
Separately, the court restored the full 22-year prison term for the so-called millennium bomber who was convicted of trying to set off explosives at Los Angeles International Airport.
Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian native, was arrested in December 1999 when he tried to cross from Canada into the United States near Seattle. He had a trunk full of explosives and was convicted of several terrorism offenses.