WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court's justices appeared to be generally satisfied Tuesday with the language of the nation's child pornography law and the U.S. government's claim that the 2003 PROTECT Act is constitutional.
The justices actively engaged a challenge to the law with various scenarios questioning whether the act is too broad or encroaches upon protected speech. They then pivoted those questions to a search for examples of harm that could come from leaving the law alone.
The case revolves around Florida man Michael Williams, who in 2004 was convicted of two counts of child pornography. An undercover agent working in an Internet chat room popular with child pornographers had targeted him. Williams posted a number of graphic messages detailing his possession of pornographic pictures and was looking to exchange them for others.
As it turned out, Williams did not have a daughter or the photos he promoted. But he was convicted nonetheless of persuading the undercover officer to believe he did. If the high court rules the PROTECT ACT is constitutional, it would reverse an 11th Circuit Court ruling that concluded people could be arrested for simply talking about having materials that some could view as child pornography.
"This statute, in short, punishes thought, beliefs, expressions and opinions," Williams attorney Richard Diaz told the court in language similar to the appeals court's decision. Asked about the supposed problems of the PROTECT Act, Diaz suggested it isn't about innocent people getting caught up in the crosshairs of the law but rather a concern that people would be afraid to speak their minds for fear of prosecution.
The argument didn't sit well with Justice Antonin Scalia who wondered what social value is protected by exempting people from prosecution who are peddling in child pornography even if they are lying about it or don't actually have possession.
Simply put, Scalia stated, "Pandering is pandering."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also seemed troubled when Diaz was unable to give her a specific real life example when she asked about needless prosecutions.
On the other side of the debate, the government's position, presented by Solicitor General Paul Clement, holds that the law as it exists is constitutional and would not bar individuals like movie critics from writing about lurid scenes in noteworthy films like "Lolita," "Traffic" and "American Beauty."
However, Clement said an individual would be caught in the law if he received an anonymous package of child pornography and then talked about it or showed it to a neighbor or police chief.
Justice Stephen Breyer and Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concerns over this answer, suggesting an individual would not be promoting child pornography by simply informing their neighbor about it or handing it off to the police.
Clement responded that any disputes of intent or purpose could easily be resolved in a case-by-case basis. He more fundamentally argued to the court the soundness of the law, adding "it's not just enough for you to envision a couple of hypotheticals" to declare it unconstitutional.
Clement's argument clearly presented a challenge to the court's 2002 decision declaring a 1996 child pornography law too broad and an infringement on First Amendment rights. The 2003 PROTECT Act was written in direct response to that court's ruling.
With the new law, Congress is trying to curb the growth of virtual child pornography, which is why it included false claims or boasting to be a crime. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee at the time the law was passed said he hoped the court would reverse the 11th Circuit's decision.
"We've tried and tried and tried again and what I hope the court realizes this time is that they're going to have to have the law match the technology otherwise smut peddlers are going to able to literally get away with murder," he said.
FOX News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.