Bill takes aim at material deemed 'harmful to minors'

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A U.S. representative from California attempting to protect children from explicit material has proposed legislation that some worry would result in frivolous lawsuits and establish a definition of pornography specifically for minors. 

On April 28, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., introduced the “Parents’ Empowerment Act of 2004,” which allows parents to sue anyone involved in the distribution of pornographic material that is obscene or otherwise “harmful to minors” to which minors could be exposed.

In the bill, HR 4239, “harmful to minors” is defined as “any pornographic communication, picture, image, graphic image file, article, recording, writing or other pornographic matter of any kind that is obscene.” It provides a definition of obscenity that allows adults to use “community standards” to determine what is suitable for minors, and it also mandates that a successful lawsuit would result in a minimum $10,000 award. 

The wording of the legislation could diminish some of the sponsors’ intention because the term “pornography” has not been defined in federal law, said a representative of People for the American Way, a civil-liberties group that has challenged similar laws. 

“Courts say [regulations to speech] must be narrowly tailored to a government interest and the least restrictive means available,” said Perry Lange, a senior legislative representative for the group. “[The Parents’ Empowerment Act] would be an excellent example of something that would not be either narrowly tailored or the least restrictive means.” 

If passed, the act could apply to the student media if parents, using “community standards,” determined that, for example, articles on sex or reproductive health were obscene or “harmful to minors.” 

Members of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund are campaigning against the bill because they say its wording threatens stores that sell pornographic material — which is legal for adults — but also sell products aimed at children.

“It is something we find philosophically repugnant,” said Charles Brownstein, the legal defense fund director. “It would allow the minor or guardian to sue anybody in the distribution food chain.”

The congressman said he hopes to give parents the tools to protect their children by punishing those involved with exposing children to pornographic and indecent material.

“I firmly believe that those responsible for the current threat of obscene material and its ill-effects should be punished for distributing such material to our children,” he said.

Whether the bill will make any progress toward becoming a law, however, is unknown, but Lange said he thinks it is unlikely.  

“It’s pretty out there,” he said. “What he seems to be trying to do is to define what would be obscene for a child versus what would be obscene for an adult. But I think the way he has gone about it is pretty problematic.”

The bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, where it has sat since May.