Drawing the Line on Virtual Child Pornography: Bringing the Law in Line with the Research Evidence


In 1996, Congress passed the Child Pornography Prevention Act (“CPPA”) to provide broader protection against sexual exploitation of children. Adding to extant prohibitions against the use of live children in child pornography, the CPPA criminalized “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 …. *” Thus, the provisions of the CPPA prohibited pornographic images in which the actors could be taken for minors, as well as computer-generated or virtual child pornography. For the first time the new legislation also reached items “advertised, promoted, presented, described, or distributed in such a manner that conveys the impression that the material is or contains a visual depiction of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” While enjoying unquestioned popular support, the constitutionality of the CPPA quickly proved suspect, making the new law a lightning rod for litigation. The CPPA withstood some early legal attacks, prevailing over challenges in four of five circuit courts from 1999 to 2001. Upon reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the act was ruled unconstitutional in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition in April of 2002.

Suggested Reading