Many of us think of California as the land of sunshine and opportunity. When I hear “California” I think of movies, television and beautiful people. Has underage gay pornography been added to California’s resume? Maybe so … let me explain.
Scott Cornelius, a police dispatcher from the University of California at Irvine, allegedly photographed high school water polo players and posted them on Web sites — but not just any Web sites — gay porn sites!
Cornelius photographed water polo players in over 12 different high schools in the lustrous Orange County area. The players were photographed without their knowledge, in various (some say erotic) positions. Now, imagine you’re a parent in the O.C. community, getting up before sunrise at 6 a.m., to encourage your children to engage in the sport of water polo and finding a creepy law enforcement agent taking pictures of your children to post on gay porn Web sites.
The usual conversation of parents at these competitions are “Where does your son plan on going to college” or, “Did Susan really ask Joe to the prom?” The conversations have quickly changed, however, now turning to potential legal remedies for these distraught parents.
Parents and teachers in these communities are understandably outraged at the exploitation of these young boys, and Cornelius, a university employed law enforcement agent, is really the butt of his own sick fantasy. Yet some people feel that Cornelius has done nothing wrong, and has only exercised his constitutionally protected First Amendment right of free speech. So who is right in this situation?
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The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a part of the Bill of Rights and it prohibits the federal legislature from making laws that infringe the freedom of speech or the freedom of the press. Although the First Amendment only explicitly prohibits certain named rights from being abridged by laws, the courts have interpreted it as applying more broadly. Further, on the rare occasion that the government does restrain the press, they are only allowed to do it on a content-neutral basis. Content-neutral means that the regulations must apply to all categories of speech, and cannot expressly prohibit a particular subject matter.
Pictures of high school water polo players are consistently posted without objection on water polo fan Web sites, such as waterpoloplanet.com. Consequently, although morally horrific to some, the government cannot make it a crime to post these pictures on gay porn sites if they allow them to be posted on other sites. So, is Cornelius in the clear? It’s not quite yet “water polo” under the bridge.
Is there another possible cause of action? Well, although the boys’ faces were blurred out in most of the pictures, their images were still used without their consent. Cornelius allegedly only placed the photos on his personal Web site, which were then allegedly taken from his site and posted on various gay porn sites from London to Australia. So, depending on how the facts unravel, Cornelius may be liable under particular state civil rights laws for an invasion of the boys’ right to privacy.
All 50 states have privacy and publicity statutes in effect, and the boys may have a valid action against Cornelius for a violation of right of privacy and right of publicity. What is the most likely outcome of the lawsuit? The boys would be entitled to injunctive relief (having the photos removed from the website) and a monetary compensation for the emotional trauma that it has caused them. The pictures have already been taken off the websites though, and many boys are currently in therapy to cope with the trauma. So is it possible Cornelius is off the hook yet again? Not quite.
The most serious of the possible charges that may be brought against Cornelius is endangering the welfare of a child, a criminal offense. You may be wondering what this charge really means? Let me bring you up to Speedo. The classic example of endangering the welfare of a child is a parent driving while on alcohol or drugs with children in the car. Child endangerment laws allow the state to hold adults criminally accountable for reckless and negligent behavior that places a child’s safety and well-being in jeopardy. Most states have had felony and misdemeanor child endangerment laws in place for many years. The rationale for these laws stems from the fact that adults need to be held accountable for their actions because children are not always in a position to control the situation they are in.
So this begs this ultimate question: did Cornelius put these children’s safety and well being in jeopardy? One last quick examination of the facts may help to paint a clearer picture. These 14 to 17-year-old boys innocently participated in high school sponsored water polo competitions. Cornelius took pictures of these young boys in revealing Speedo bikinis. The pictures were then posted on homosexual Web sites, alongside explicit erotic photos of other men with captions degrading the young boys. The boys found out about the Web sites, and were seriously traumatized. So although the facts may not have fully unraveled yet, the children’s safety and well-being could have been put in serious jeopardy.
We need to protect our children's best interests not just for their well-being but also for society's. With the Internet as free and as dangerously unregulated as it is, the potential for abuse goes deeper into the water than we like to think. Cornelius may have only been exercising his First Amendment right of free speech, but he runs the risk of being liable both for civil and criminal penalties. This case should show us that adults need to start acting more prudent in their online adventures; otherwise unfit adults could hinder the bright future of our children.
The information contained in this Web site feature entitled “LIS ON LAW,” is provided as a service to visitors of foxnews.com, and does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney client relationship. FOX NEWS NETWORK, LLC makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to this web site feature and its associated sites. Nothing provided herein should be used as a substitute for the advice of your own counsel.
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.