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Bill limits children's exposure to violence

Internet content is the latest target lawmakers have set their sights on as they scramble to prevent minors from being exposed to violent media.

Internet content is the latest target lawmakers have set their sights on as they scramble to prevent minors from being exposed to violent media following a string of random acts of bloodshed at high schools around the country.

Rep. Henry Hyde's (R- Illinois) amendment to the so-called Juvenile Justice Bill would prohibit the sale to minors of any image or content that contains sexually explicit or violent material.

"I do not believe Congress is powerless to address access by children to this specific type of material that is drenched with violence and glorifies it to harmful levels," Hyde said in a statement.

Observers say that although Congress has passed laws to curb minors' access to sexual content--which have been legally challenged and so far have never been enacted--limiting the sale of violent online material would break new ground. Bills addressing children's issues in both houses have become vehicles for tough new restrictions on minors' access to information, such as a Senate proposal to ban the publishing of bomb-making instructions in most cases.

Critics say the bill is dangerously far-reaching.

Though Hyde's Protecting Children from the Culture of Violence amendment doesn't specifically mention content sold over the Net, most of the material defined by the proposal can be found online. Moreover, the legislation calls on the entertainment industry--including Net publishers--to develop voluntary programming guidelines, such as those by the National Association of Broadcasters, to alleviate the "negative impact" of their content.

Overall, the amendment makes it illegal to sell those under age of 17 "any picture, photograph, drawing, sculpture, video game, motion picture film, or similar visual representation or image, book, pamphlet, magazine, printed matter, or sound recording" that an average person would find "patently offensive with the respect to what is suitable for minors." The material would have to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Violent content is defined as an actual or simulated depiction or display, verbal description, or narrative account of sadomasochism, torture, mutilation, or rape. Violators would face an unspecified fine and up to five years in prison for a first offense and ten years for each subsequent offense.

Some civil liberties advocates are denouncing the bill, saying it goes too far.

"The definition of 'obscenity' is expanded to include violence, which is unprecedented," said Liza Kessler, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"The amendment applies to any exhibition or image, which we would assume applies to the Net," she added. "The question is whether online publishers will be held criminally liable for publishing 'violent' material, such as a first-person shooter video game or a news site that includes photos from Kosovo or any war zone."

Hyde's staff says the bill would not apply to news sites and that it is only targeted at pay-per-view content.

"Whether it applies to the Internet would probably be up to courts to decide, but there isn't a specific Internet section," said Michael Connolly, a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, which Hyde chairs. "It's a point of sale issue. So it possibly applies to [sales over the Net]."