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USSupreme Court Hears Arguments in Michael Williams Free Speech Kiddie Porn Case

WASHINGTON – Several U.S. Supreme Court justices expressed doubt on Tuesday that a law barring child pornography could be applied to popular award-winning movies like “Lolita,” “Traffic,” American Beauty” and “Titanic.”

The justices appeared to support the pandering provision of a 2003 federal law that makes it a crime to promote, distribute or solicit material in a way intended to cause others to believe it contains child pornography.

They were hearing arguments in a case brought by the Bush administration urging them to uphold the law, after a U.S. appeals court struck down that provision on the grounds the government cannot suppress lawful free speech.

Bush administration lawyer Paul Clement argued that the law does not illegally infringe on free-speech or other rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

He said the law does not inhibit legitimate creative expression, and drew a distinction between mainstream movies and illegal child pornography.

“If you’re taking a movie like ‘Traffic’ or ‘American Beauty’, which is not child pornography, and you’re simply truthfully promoting it, you have nothing to worry about with this statute,” Clement told the justices.

“Traffic” has a scene with the high-school daughter of the nation’s drug czar appearing to have sex with a drug dealer; “Lolita” portrayed a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young girl; “Titanic” depicted a love affair by a young couple on a doomed ship; and “American Beauty” involved a 42-year-old man’s attraction to his daughter’s best friend.

Chief Justice John Roberts asked the attorney who is challenging the law about the government’s distinction between legitimate films and illegal child pornography.

Lawyer Richard Diaz is representing a Florida man, Michael Williams, who was arrested in 2004 after he traded messages in an Internet chat room with an undercover federal agent posing as a woman.

Williams offered to trade photos of children with the agent and then posted seven images of minors in sexually explicit conduct. At issue before the Supreme Court is his conviction for promoting child pornography.

“Your client … didn’t produce Lolita,” Roberts said to Diaz. Roberts expressed concern that Williams could argue the law might be applied too broadly in hypothetical cases like “Lolita.”

Justice Stephen Breyer cited the movies “American Beauty” and “Traffic” and noted Clement’s position. “I don’t see under his interpretation how anyone could conceivably be prosecuted,” Breyer said.

Diaz argued the law punished “thought, beliefs, expressions and opinions.” He said someone could be convicted if they cited one of the films like Lolita and said it contained “hot graphic teen sex.”

Justice David Souter seemed skeptical of that argument. “Most 17-year-olds are, in fact, going to realize the real thing is not going on in, you know, the Lolita movie,” he said.

The Supreme Court in 2002 struck down an earlier version of the law that included computer-generated images that appeared to depict minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

Congress then adopted new legislation in 2003, which President George W. Bush signed into law, in an effort to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

A ruling on the current case is expected by the end of June.

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