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No free-press defense in porn case

A reporter who says he trafficked in child porn online for a news investigation can't use the First Amendment as a defense, a court rules.

    Although veteran radio reporter Larry Matthews argues he obtained online child pornography during a news investigation, he can't rely fully on the First Amendment as a defense to charges he possessed the material, a federal judge has ruled.

    Judge Alexander Williams of the U.S. District Court in Maryland sided with prosecutors in a ruling this week, stating that reporters can't sidestep the law to get a story. The judge said he does not believe Matthews is entitled to a First Amendment defense.

    As previously reported, Matthews was indicted last summer on 15 counts of possessing and transmitting child pornography. He says he was conducting research for a story for WTOP radio in Washington.

    Matthews will not be able to tell a jury his First Amendment defense: that he, acting as a member of the press, engaged in trading child pornography on the Net to expose the boom in the practice and to criticize law enforcement for failing to crack down on the problem.

    "The law is clear that a press pass is not a license to break the law," Williams's ruling states. "The First Amendment's protection of news-gathering activity does not guarantee the press a right to break and enter a home or office and search for news."

    Williams said a reporter could instead attend an accused child pornography traffickers' court hearings or interview victims of child pornography.

    "The court does not believe the only way a reporter can confirm that pornography is available on the Internet is to obtain and distribute the images himself," the ruling continues. "One must keep in mind that the defendant's receipt and dissemination of pornography is the exact harm...contributing to the sexual exploitation of children."

    The case carries wide implications because the ruling in favor of prosecutors could ultimately be applied to anyone who is researching online child pornography, according to Matthews's lawyer Leslie McAdoo-Brobson.

    For example, psychiatrists, sociologists, professors, or even congressional staff who are drafting legislation regarding the material could theoretically be charged with criminal activity for engaging in the practices for which Matthews was indicted.

    The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, National Public Radio, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association have filed legal briefs on Matthews's behalf, although they did not categorically defend his right to commit a crime.

    In legal briefs requesting that the case be dismissed, Matthews's attorney contended that her client has a First Amendment right to gather news, which includes confirming the existence of online child porn by accessing photos and hanging out in chat rooms where he claims people solicited sex with minors as well as buying and selling child pornography.

    The U.S. District Attorney's Office in Maryland countered the defense on grounds that it could block the prosecution of pedophiles who have any credentials to hide behind.

    "If the defendant's position is a valid one, then someone claiming to be a member of the media seeking to gather information to write an article about drug dealing would be free to buy and sell drugs without fear of prosecution," stated the district attorney's office in a court brief.

    In 1995, Matthews, who has worked as an editor for National Public Radio, produced a three-part series on the explosion of child porn on the Net. In 1996 he continued his investigation, according to McAdoo-Brobson, and even tipped the FBI off to one woman he said was peddling her kids on the Net.

    The 31-year veteran journalist's ultimate goal, McAdoo-Brobson said, was to sell a magazine article about children being prostituted on the Net and law enforcement's track record for dealing with the problem.