First Amendment Limits: Child Pornography

The Supreme Court has recognized several categories of expression that, as a society, should be deemed unworthy of First Amendment protection. One of those categories is child pornography. The courts have found that protecting children from trafficking and other harms outweighs another person's First Amendment right to free speech.

What the First Amendment Says

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech..."

What It Means

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

In New York v. Ferber,1 the Court recognized another category of expression that is outside the coverage of the First Amendment: the visual depiction of children in films or still photographs in a variety of sexual activities or exposures of the genitals. The reason that such depictions may be prohibited was the governmental interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of children, whose participation in the production of these materials would subject them to exploitation and harm. The state may go beyond a mere prohibition of the use of children, because it is not possible to protect children adequately without prohibiting the exhibition and dissemination of the materials and advertising about them. Thus, the evil to be restricted so overwhelmingly outweighs the expressive interests, if any, at stake, that no process of case-by-case adjudication is required.2 But, because expression is involved, the government must carefully define what conduct is to be prohibited and may reach only works that visually depict sexual conduct by children below a specified age.3

The reach of the state may even extend to private possession of child pornography in the home. In Osborne v. Ohio4 the Court upheld a state law criminalizing the possession or viewing of child pornography as applied to someone who possessed such materials in his home. Distinguishing Stanley v. Georgia, the Court ruled that Ohio's interest in preventing exploitation of children far exceeded what it characterized as Georgia's paternalistic interest in protecting the minds of adult viewers of pornography.5 Because of the greater importance of the state interest involved, the Court saw less need to require states to demonstrate a strong necessity for regulating private possession as well as commercial distribution and sale.

In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, the Court held unconstitutional the federal Child Pornography Prevention Act (CPPA) to the extent that it prohibited pictures that were not produced with actual minors.6 Prohibited pictures included computer-generated (virtual) child pornography, and photographs of adult actors who appeared to be minors, as well as a Renaissance painting depicting a scene from classical mythology.7 The Court observed that statutes that prohibit child pornography that use real children are constitutional because they target [t]he production of the work, not the content.8 The CPPA, by contrast, targeted the content, not the means of production. The government's rationales for the CPPA included that [p]edophiles might use the materials to encourage children to participate in sexual activity and might whet their own sexual appetites with it, thereby increasing . . . the sexual abuse and exploitation of actual children.9 The Court found these rationales inadequate because the government cannot constitutionally premise legislation on the desirability of controlling a person's private thoughts and may not prohibit speech because it increases the chance an unlawful act will be committed 'at some indefinite future time.'10 The government had also argued that the existence of virtual child pornography can make it harder to prosecute pornographers who do use real minors, because, [a]s imaging technology improves . . . , it becomes more difficult to prove that a particular picture was produced using actual children.11 This rationale, the Court found, turns the First Amendment upside down. The Government may not suppress lawful speech as a means to suppress unlawful speech.12

In United States v. Williams,13 the Supreme Court upheld a federal statute that prohibits knowingly advertising, promoting, presenting, distributing, or soliciting material in a manner that reflects the belief, or that is intended to cause another to believe, that the material is child pornography that is obscene or that depicts an actual minor (i.e., is child pornography that is not constitutionally protected).14 Under the provision, in other words, an Internet user who solicits child pornography from an undercover agent violates the statute, even if the officer possesses no child pornography. Likewise, a person who advertises virtual child pornography as depicting actual children also falls within the reach of the statute.15 The Court found that these activities are not constitutionally protected because [o]ffers to engage in illegal transactions [as opposed to abstract advocacy of illegality] are categorically excluded from First Amendment protection, even when the offeror is mistaken about the factual predicate of his offer, such as when the child pornography that one offers to buy or sell does not exist or is constitutionally protected.16

Protection of Children from Indecent Material

Government has a compelling interest in the protection of children from seeing or hearing indecent material, but total bans applicable to adults and children alike are constitutionally suspect.17 In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union,18 the Court struck down two provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), one of which would have prohibited use of an interactive computer service to display indecent material in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age.19 This prohibition would, in effect, have banned indecent material from all Internet sites except those accessible by only by adults. Although intended to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA's burden on adult speech, the Court wrote, is unacceptable if less restrictive alternatives would be at least as effective. The Government may not 'reduce the adult population to only what is fit for children.'20

In Reno, the Court distinguished FCC v. Pacifica Foundation,21 in which it had upheld the FCC's restrictions on indecent radio and television broadcasts, because (1) the CDA's broad categorical prohibitions are not limited to particular times and are not dependent on any evaluation by an agency familiar with the unique characteristics of the Internet, (2) the CDA imposes criminal penalties, and the Court has never decided whether indecent broadcasts would justify a criminal prosecution, and (3) radio and television, unlike the Internet, have, as a matter of history 'received the most limited First Amendment protection,' in large part because warnings could not adequately protect the listener from unexpected program content. On the Internet, the risk of encountering indecent material by accident is remote because a series of affirmative steps is required to access specific material.22

After the Supreme Court struck down the CDA, Congress enacted the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which banned material that is harmful to minors on Web sites that have the objective of earning a profit.23 The Third Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the statute on the ground that, because the standard by which COPA gauges whether material is 'harmful to minors' is based on identifying 'contemporary community standards[,]' the inability of Web publishers to restrict access to their Web sites based on the geographic locale of the site visitor, in and of itself, imposes an impermissible burden on constitutionally protected First Amendment speech.24 This is because it results in communications available to a nationwide audience being judged by the standards of the community most likely to be offended. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that COPA's reliance on community standards to identify 'material that is harmful to minors' does not by itself render the statute substantially overbroad for purposes of the First Amendment.25

Upon remand, the Third Circuit again upheld the preliminary injunction, and the Supreme Court affirmed and remanded the case for trial. The Supreme Court found that the district court had not abused its discretion in granting the preliminary injunction, because the government had failed to show that proposed alternatives to COPA would not be as effective in accomplishing its goal. The primary alternative to COPA, the Court noted, is blocking and filtering software. Filters are less restrictive than COPA because [t]hey impose selective restrictions on speech at the receiving end, not universal restriction at the source.26 Subsequently, the district court found COPA to violate the First Amendment and issued a permanent injunction against its enforcement; the Third Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court denied certioriari.27

In United States v. American Library Association, Inc., a four-Justice plurality of the Supreme Court upheld the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which, as the plurality summarized it, provides that a public school or library may not receive federal assistance to provide Internet access unless it installs software to block images that constitute obscenity or child pornography, and to prevent minors from obtaining access to material that is harmful to them.28 The plurality asked whether libraries would violate the First Amendment by employing the filtering software that CIPA requires.29 Does CIPA, in other words, effectively violate library patrons' rights? The plurality concluded that it does not, after finding that Internet access in public libraries is neither a 'traditional' nor a 'designated' public forum, and that it therefore would not be appropriate to apply strict scrutiny to determine whether the filtering requirements are constitutional.30

The plurality acknowledged the tendency of filtering software to 'overblock'—that is, to erroneously block access to constitutionally protected speech that falls outside the categories that software users intend to block.31 It found, however, that, [a]ssuming that such erroneous blocking presents constitutional difficulties, any such concerns are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled.32

The plurality also considered whether CIPA imposes an unconstitutional condition on the receipt of federal assistance—in other words, does it violate public libraries' rights by requiring them to limit their freedom of speech if they accept federal funds? The plurality found that, assuming that government entities have First Amendment rights (it did not decide the question), CIPA does not 'penalize' libraries that choose not to install such software, or deny them the right to provide their patrons with unfiltered Internet access. Rather, CIPA simply reflects Congress's decision not to subsidize their doing so.33

More on the First Amendment

Balancing Privacy Rights with Freedom of Speech and the Free Press

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Religion


1. 458 U.S. 747 (1982). Decision of the Court was unanimous, although there were several limiting concurrences. Comparee.g., 775 (Justice Brennan, arguing for exemption of material with serious literary, scientific, or educational value), with 774 (Justice O'Connor, arguing that such material need not be excepted). The Court did not pass on the question, inasmuch as the materials before it were well within the prohibitable category. Id. at 766–74.

2. 458 U.S. at 763–64.

3. 458 U.S. at 764 (emphasis original). Child pornography need not meet Miller obscenity standards to be unprotected by the First Amendment. Id. at 764–65.

4. 495 U.S. 103 (1990).

5. 495 U.S. at 108.

6. 535 U.S. 234 (2002).

7. 535 U.S. at 241.

8. 535 U.S. at 249; see also id. at 241.

9. 535 U.S. at 241.

10. 535 U.S. at 253.

11. 535 U.S. at 242.

12. 535 U.S. at 255. Following Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, Congress enacted the PROTECT Act, Pub. L. No. 108-21, 117 Stat. 650 (2003), which, despite the decision in that case, defined child pornography so as to continue to prohibit computer-generated child pornography (but not other types of child pornography produced without an actual minor). 18 U.S.C. § 2256(8)(B). In United States v. Williams, 128 S. Ct. 1830, 1836 (2008), the Court, without addressing the PROTECT Act's new definition, cited Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition with approval.

13. 128 S. Ct. 1830 (2008).

14. 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(3)(B).

15. 128 S. Ct. at 1839.

16. 128 S. Ct. at 1841, 1842, 1843. Justice Souter, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ginsburg, agreed that Congress may criminalize proposals unrelated to any extant image, but disagreed with respect to proposals made with regard to specific, existing [constitutionally protected] representations. Id. at 1849. Justice Souter believed that, if the Act stands when applied to identifiable, extant [constitutionally protected] pornographic photographs, then in practical terms Ferber and Free Speech Coalition fall. They are left as empty as if the Court overruled them formally. Id. at 1854. Justice Scalia's opinion for the majority replied that this is simply not true. Simulated child pornography will be as available as ever, so long as it is offered and sought as such, and not as real child pornography. There is no First Amendment exception from the general principle of criminal law that a person attempting to commit a crime need not be exonerated because he has a mistaken view of the facts. Id. at 1844–45.

17. See Sable Communications v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115 (1989) (FCC's dial-a-porn rules imposing a total ban on indecent speech are unconstitutional, given less restrictive alternatives—e.g., credit cards or user IDs—of preventing access by children). Pacifica Foundation is distinguishable, the Court reasoned, because that case did not involve a total ban on broadcast, and also because there is no captive audience for the dial-it medium, as there is for the broadcast medium. 492 U.S. at 127–28. Similar rules apply to regulation of cable TV. In Denver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727, 755 (1996), the Court, acknowledging that protection of children from sexually explicit programming is a compelling governmental interest (but refusing to determine whether strict scrutiny applies), nonetheless struck down a requirement that cable operators segregate and block indecent programming on leased access channels. The segregate-and-block restrictions, which included a requirement that a request for access be in writing, and which allowed for up to 30 days' delay in blocking or unblocking a channel, were not sufficiently protective of adults' speech and viewing interests to be considered either narrowly or reasonably tailored to serve the government's compelling interest in protecting children. In United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803 (2000), the Supreme Court, explicitly applying strict scrutiny to a content-based speech restriction on cable TV, struck down a federal statute designed to shield children from hearing or seeing images resulting from signal bleed. Id. at 806.

The Court seems to be becoming less absolute in viewing the protection of all minors (regardless of age) from all indecent material (regardless of its educational value and parental approval) to be a compelling governmental interest. In striking down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the Court would neither accept nor reject the Government's submission that the First Amendment does not forbid a blanket prohibition on all 'indecent' and 'patently offensive' messages communicated to a 17-year-old—no matter how much value the message may have and regardless of parental approval. It is at least clear that the strength of the Government's interest in protecting minors is not equally strong throughout the coverage of this broad statute. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997). In Playboy Entertainment Group, 529 U.S. at 825, the Court wrote: Even upon the assumption that the government has an interest in substituting itself for informed and empowered parents, its interest is not sufficiently compelling to justify this widespread restriction on speech. The Court also would not discount the possibility that a graphic image could have a negative impact on a young child (id. at 826), thereby suggesting again that it may take age into account when applying strict scrutiny.

18. 521 U.S. 844 (1997).

19. The other provision the Court struck down would have prohibited indecent communications, by telephone, fax, or e-mail, to minors.

20. 521 U.S. at 874–75. The Court did not address whether, if less restrictive alternatives would not be as effective, the government would then be permitted to reduce the adult population to only what is fit for children. Courts of appeals, however, have written that [t]he State may not regulate at all if it turns out that even the least restrictive means of regulation is still unreasonable when its limitations on freedom of speech are balanced against the benefits gained from those limitations. ACLU v. Reno, 217 F.3d 162, 179 (3d Cir. 2000)vacated and remanded sub nom.Ashcroft v. ACLU, 535 U.S. 564 (2002)Carlin Communications, Inc. v. FCC, 837 F.2d 546, 555 (2d Cir. 1988).

21. 438 U.S. 726 (1978).

22. 521 U.S. at 867.

23. Harmful to minors statutes ban the distribution of material to minors that is not necessarily obscene under the Miller test. In Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, 641 (1968), the Supreme Court, applying a rational basis standard, upheld New York's harmful-to-minors statute.

24. ACLU v. Reno, 217 F.3d 162, 166 (3d Cir. 2000).

25. Ashcroft v. ACLU, 535 U.S. 564, 585 (2002).

26. Ashcroft v. ACLU, 542 U.S. 656, 667 (2004). Justice Breyer, dissenting, wrote that blocking and filtering software is not a less restrictive alternative because it is part of the status quo and [i]t is always less restrictive to do nothing than to do somethingId. at 684. The majority opinion countered that Congress may act to encourage the use of filters, and [t]he need for parental cooperation does not automatically disqualify a proposed less restrictive alternative. Id. at 669.

27. American Civil Liberties Union v. Gonzales, 478 F. Supp. 2d 775 (E.D. Pa. 2007)aff'd sub nom. American Civil Liberties Union v. Mukasey, 534 F.3d 181 (3d Cir. 2008)cert. denied, 129 S. Ct. 1032 (2009).

28. 539 U.S. 194, 199 (2003).

29. 539 U.S. at 203.

30. 539 U.S. at 205.

31. 539 U.S. at 208.

32. 539 U.S. at 209. Justice Kennedy, concurring, noted that, [i]f some libraries do not have the capacity to unblock specific Web sites or to disable the filter . . . that would be the subject for an as-applied challenge, not the facial challenge made in this case. 539 U.S. at 215. Justice Souter, dissenting, noted that the statute says only that a library 'may' unblock, not that it must. 539 U.S. at 233.

33. 539 U.S. at 212.

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