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Jewish World Review / July 16, 1998 / 22 Tamuz, 5758

Clarence Page

Clarence Page Child porn vs. Internet rights; drawing fine lines

WASHINGTON --- JOURNALIST LARRY Matthews says he intended only to cover some news, not to make it.

The subject of his research was child pornography on the Internet.

Now he's charged with trafficking in the very smut he says he was investigating, and prosecutors have asked a federal judge to block Matthews from using the First Amendment as his defense.

With that, Matthews joined Barnes & Noble, the nation's largest bookstore chain, as a defendant in child pornography cases that raise serious questions as to how far lawmakers should be allowed to cast their nets in their war against child smut.

Matthews, a radio newsman with 31 years of experience who now works as an editor at National Public Radio, says through his attorneys that he was researching a free-lance story on child smut on the Internet.

When he went into Internet chat rooms and announced that he was a reporter seeking to talk to people who were interested in lewd photos of children, he was greeted about as warmly as a skunk at a picnic, he says.

So he posed as someone who was interested in child porn and, bingo, soon he was receiving pictures of young girls in lewd poses. Matthews' lawyers said he met earlier with FBI agents while researching a three-part radio report that was broadcast in late 1995. Also, in 1996 he reported a child prostitution offer he had received in a chat room, his attorneys said.

But when he tried to gain the trust of other aficionados by offering some of the photos he had obtained over the 'Net, he got busted. He was indicted last year on nine felony counts of possession and six counts of distribution of child pornography. He is scheduled to stand trial in July in U.S. District Court in Maryland.

Matthews argues that he was using enterprise and resourcefulness like any other good reporter to root out an important story and that his activities, therefore, should be protected by the First Amendment. That's sort of like what Barnes & Noble said in February when the chain vowed to continue to stock and sell art books containing photos of nude children, despite grand jury indictments on obscenity charges in Alabama and Tennessee.

The books in question are Radiant Identities by Jock Sturges and The Age of Innocence by David Hamilton. I have seen both and found them to be no more obscene (and far more artfully executed) than the nudist family magazines that have legally circulated in the mail since at least the 1950s.

But Randall Terry doesn't agree. You may remember him as the conservative radio show host and former car salesman who led Operation Rescue anti-abortion protests in the 1980s. More recently he's been leading nationwide protests against the books at Barnes & Noble and other stores.

Most people find the very notion of child pornography to be so disgusting that state and federal lawmakers run into little opposition when they pass sweeping anti-porn laws for the Internet. Questioned about such niceties as the First Amendment, they are content to leave it to the courts to sort out the details.

But the details are what protect legitimate journalism and intellectual inquiry in this country. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said that he could not define obscenity, but he knew it when he saw it. With that he described the paradox of porn laws: Who will decide what the rest of us are going to see?

Child pornography is disgusting. It is also child abuse. As such, we are on much easier constitutional ground when we prosecute the producers of it than when we try to go after those who merely possess the questionable material.

Under the new federal Internet laws, only law enforcement authorities can legally possess such materials. Prosecutors say Matthews' journalistic motives are irrelevant, that it is only his acts, not his intent, that count.

As a result, this appears to be the first known case of a reporter being prosecuted for obtaining or sending outlawed materials over the Internet. I hope Congress never intended to have the law interpreted this broadly. I hope the net of law making and enforcement is aimed to snare child abusers, not legitimate journalistic investigations.

Similarly, the Barnes & Noble case pits a small, loud group of critics against the rights of the rest of us to judge for ourselves whether the work of Sturges or Hamilton is our cup of tea or not.

Both photographers must be delighted by the free publicity Randall Terry has brought them. I can't define stupidity, but I know it when I see it.


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©1998, Tribune Media Services.