Back in 2016, a study found that it was increasingly difficult for subjects to distinguish between actual photographs of people and computer-generated simulations of them. The researchers suggested that development would complicate prosecution of child pornography cases. That concern has been magnified by rapid improvements in artificial intelligence, prompting a California bill that would, among other things, make it a felony to possess virtual child pornography when it qualifies as “obscene.” This provision seems constitutionally problematic in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding that the First Amendment bars legislators from criminalizing the mere possession of obscene material.
Assembly Bill 1831, introduced by Assemblymember Marc Berman (D–Palo Alto) on January 12, aims to expand the state’s definition of child pornography to include “representations of real or fictitious persons generated through use of artificially intelligent software or computer-generated means, who are, or who a reasonable person would regard as being, real persons under 18 years of age, engaging in or simulating sexual conduct.” Since that new definition would pose obvious First Amendment problems as applied to constitutionally protected images, the bill specifies that such representations must meet the state’s definition of obscenity: material that “to the average person, applying contemporary statewide standards, appeals to the prurient interest”; “depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way”; and “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
That definition of obscenity tracks the test that the Supreme Court established in the 1973 case Miller v. California. But four years earlier in Stanley v. Georgia, the Court unanimously rejected a state law that made it a crime to possess “obscene matter.” Writing for the Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall drew a distinction between that ban and other obscenity laws: “Whatever may be the justifications for other statutes regulating obscenity, we do not think they reach into the privacy of one’s own home. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch. Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.”
Berman evidently did not view the Supreme Court’s reading of the First Amendment as an obstacle to his goals, and he is by no means alone in that. Way back in 1996, Congress tried to ban “any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer-generated image or picture,” that “is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” The Supreme Court deemed that law unconstitutional in the 2002 case Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, noting that “the literal terms of the statute embrace a Renaissance painting depicting a scene from classical mythology” as well as “Hollywood movies, filmed without any child actors, if a jury believes an actor ‘appears to be’ a minor engaging in ‘actual or simulated…sexual intercourse.'”
Congress tried again in 2003. The PROTECT Act covered any “digital image, computer
image, or computer-generated image” that is “indistinguishable” from “that of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” Unlike Berman’s bill, it did not require that such material qualify as obscene, making it even more constitutionally questionable. But it did include an obscenity test for another category of proscribed material: “a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting,” that “depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” And the law applied a less demanding test to any visual depiction of “a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal.” The PROTECT Act made such material illegal if it “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” dispensing with the other two prongs of the obscenity test.
In 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit considered the case of a Virginia man, Dwight Whorley, who was charged with violating the PROTECT Act by “knowingly receiving on a computer 20 obscene Japanese anime cartoons depicting minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” Whorley argued that the law’s prohibition on receiving obscene images was “facially unconstitutional” because “receiving materials is an incident of their possession, and possession of obscene materials is protected by the holding of Stanley v. Georgia.”
The 4th Circuit rejected that claim. “Stanley‘s holding was a narrow one, focusing only on the possession of obscene materials in the privacy of one’s home,” the majority said. “The Court’s holding did not prohibit the government from regulating the channels of commerce.” The appeals court perceived the provision under which Whorley was charged as “focusing on the movement of obscene material in channels of commerce, and not on its mere possession.” So even though receiving, viewing, and possessing images are all essentially the same thing in the context of the internet, the appeals court concluded that Whorley’s prosecution did not run afoul of Stanley. But even that debatable reading does not seem to help Berman’s bill, which explicitly applies to “every person who knowingly possesses or controls” the newly prohibited images.
Whorley also argued that the PROTECT Act was “unconstitutional under the First Amendment, as applied to cartoons, because cartoons do not depict actual minors.” The 4th Circuit also rejected that argument, noting that cartoons are covered by the law only when they are “obscene” and that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment.
That point does aid the defense of Berman’s bill, but again not insofar as it applies to mere possession. In other cases involving cartoons, such as manga, Simpsons porn, and “incest comics,” federal defendants have pleaded guilty to possession charges, avoiding a constitutional test.
As applied to distribution, A.B. 1831’s obscenity requirement follows the approach that New York University law professor Rosalind Bell recommended in a 2012 law review article. Bell argued that the PROTECT Act provision covering digital images “indistinguishable” from the real thing, which does not require a finding of obscenity, is clearly unconstitutional.
In the 1982 case New York v. Ferber, Bell noted, “the Court established that the First Amendment does not extend to child pornography because the state has a special interest in protecting children from harm.” That interest, the Court held eight years later in Osborne v. Ohio, justifies even a ban on private possession of child pornography. But those cases involved actual child pornography, and the Court’s reasoning focused on the injury that its production and dissemination inflicts on the children whose abuse it documents.
“Post-Ferber child pornography regulation and court decisions interpreting this regulation have become untethered from the Supreme Court’s crucial limiting interest in protecting children from physical and emotional harm,” Bell wrote. “Increasingly, congressional action and court opinions reflect concerns about controlling private thoughts rather than preventing and punishing direct harm.”
Bell noted that Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film adaptation of “Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel Lolita” went “straight to cable” because distributors worried that law enforcement agencies might deem it child pornography. “Writers and artists have explored the theme of adolescent sexuality in countless valuable works,” she wrote. “By banning non-obscene virtual depictions of child sexuality without reference to their social value, we exceed the First Amendment’s crucial dictates and jeopardize these works, including acclaimed films like Romeo and Juliet, The Tin Drum, American Beauty, and Taxi Driver.”
The “serious value” of such material presumably would protect it from Berman’s bill, which is why the obscenity requirement is crucial. But the ban on possession still flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s conclusion that “a State has no business telling a man” what he can look at while “sitting alone in his own house.” Although the Court later made an exception for pornography involving actual children, that exception does not encompass images that can be produced without violating anyone’s rights.