Filed at 9:10 a.m. ET
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Justice Department is making it easier for prosecutors to file criminal charges against child pornographers in an unusually pointed response to the Supreme Court's decision to overturn major parts of a 1996 child pornography law on free speech grounds.
Attorney General John Ashcroft complained bluntly that the court's 6-3 ruling Tuesday against two major provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act will make the government's job of prosecuting child-pornography cases ``immeasurably more difficult.''
Ashcroft vowed to continue pursuing child pornography investigations nationally using broader obscenity laws and to work with Congress on new laws that would withstand challenges to the Supreme Court.
``I am disappointed that the court chose to make that obligation to prosecute child pornography more difficult,'' Ashcroft said. ``However, I am undeterred in my resolve to do all that I can to protect our children from the pornographers and other predators who would prey on their innocence.''
Ashcroft warned that child pornographers ``will find little refuge'' in the court's ruling that said the government went too far in trying to ban computer simulations and other fool-the-eye depictions of teen-agers or children having sex.
In response, the Justice Department quickly eased rules requiring approval by the local U.S. attorney to pursue criminal charges under the disputed child pornography law. It also ordered prosecutors to examine any pending cases to see whether defendants could be charged under existing obscenity statutes, which are generally more difficult for the government to use.
Top lawyers in the Justice Department also talked with lawmakers about new child pornography laws that would be unaffected by the concerns expressed by the Supreme Court. A senior Justice official said, for example, that a new law could outlaw images of prepubescent children, since the court complained about the 1996 law's prohibition of sexual images of anyone who appears to be under 18.
``Pictures of what appear to be 17-year-olds engaging in sexually explicit activity do not in every case contravene community standards,'' the court said, noting that children 16 or younger are allowed to be married in at least 39 states.
The court's decision Tuesday invalidated two provisions of the 1996 law as overly broad and unconstitutional. Free speech advocates and pornographers had challenged the law's ban on material that ``appears to be'' a child in a sexually explicit situation or that is advertised to convey the impression that someone under 18 is involved.
``The statute proscribes the visual depiction of an idea -- that of teen-agers engaging in sexual activity -- that is a fact of modern society and has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages,'' Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a decision joined by four other justices. Clarence Thomas, one of the court's most conservative justices, wrote a separate opinion agreeing with the outcome.
Another section of the law was not challenged, and remains in force. It bans prurient computer alteration of innocent images of children, such as the grafting of a child's school picture onto a naked body.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer signed Kennedy's opinion. Thomas, in a separate concurring opinion, said the court's ruling appropriately strikes down a ban that was too sweeping but leaves a window for future regulation of some kinds of virtual child pornography.
Congress passed the law as a bulwark against then-emerging computer technology that allowed pornographers to simulate child sex without using actual children.
The law was intended primarily to stop pornography produced through computer wizardry not available when the court placed child pornography outside First Amendment protection in 1982.
The case is Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 00-795.
Permission requested 2002/04/17.