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Conservative 'versions' clash on child pornography ruling

Posted: Wednesday, May 01, 2002


Opinion pieces published Sunday provide a convenient way to distinguish between two versions of political conservatism. On The Augusta Chronicles opinion page, James Kilpatrick wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court got this one exactly right. He was referring to the Courts decision striking downt he 1996 Child Pornography Act as unconstitutionally broad under the First Amendment. On The News-Times opinion page, local Baptist minister Bill Harrell claimed that the Court in the same case got the issues confused and went wrong.

What is the difference between the views of the reliably conservative Kilpat-rick and the relentlessly conservative Harrell? To begin with, Kilpatrick actually listened to what the Court said. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, making it very clear that the Court shared a deep concern over the danger posed by child pornography, both virtual and real. Child pornography, in Kennedys words, is repugnant to the moral instincts of a decent people.

Nevertheless, the majority found, the wording of the 1996 Act was too broad and too vague, taking into its purview not just material patently offensive, but also forms of expression almost certainly protected by the First Amendment. Kilpatrick, a member of the reasonable Right, agreed. When Congress seeks a morally justified end, the legal means to it must be constitutional.

Harrell, a card-carrying member of the religious Right, must have missed all this. Of course, subtlety always loses when a fanatic is on the loose. Harrell is single-minded in his conviction that liberal judges are out to destroy the moral fabric of America. (Unfortunately for Harrells theory, the Courts 7-2 decision here included a conditioned concurrence by Justice Clarence Thomas!)

In fact, Harrells analysis completely distorts the Courts reasoning. Harrell implies that opposing the 1996 Act means supporting the rights of child pornographers. No fair reading of the Courts opinion supports that view. Harrell is an ends justifies the means conservative. For him, Bible law trumps all other law, even the Constitution.

Reason will prevail. In the wake of the Courts decision, the next step is for Congress to rewrite the 1996 Act eliminating the broad and vague language which cannot pass Constitutional review. Then, perhaps, our country can get rid of the moral scourge of child pornography, virtual and real, while continuing to honor the rights on which our ultimate freedoms depend.

Harrell actually comes to the same conclusion. Too bad he had to take a detour through the wilds of the far Right to get there.

Charles P. Heywood



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