Legal grounds for fighting child pornography have been strengthened. But assessments of what effect this will have on the commerce in such material differ sharply.
In unanimously upholding the conviction of a bookstore owner under a New York law banning the sale of child pornography, the US Supreme Court in effect upheld similar laws in some 20 states.
The court made it clear that states have a legitimate interest in restricting the distribution of this type of material, whether or not it fits the legal definition of ''obscenity.'' In effect, the justices agreed to permit the kind of ban on child pornography that they do not permit on adult pornography.
This will make prosecutions of child pornography cases easier, says Robert Horowitz, an attorney with the American Bar Association's National Legal Resource Center for Child Advocacy and Protection. Had the court's decision ''gone the other way,'' Mr. Horowitz added, there might have been a ''reemergence'' of child pornography in adult bookstores across the nation.
In practical terms, however, the high court's ruling is expected to have minimal immediate effect on the trade in child pornography, because it is rarely being sold in adult bookstores today, investigators told the Monitor.
The Supreme Court stance is seen as a dangerous one by the American Civil Liberties Union. ''Government intrusion into freedom of speech is expanded'' by the decision, says the ACLU's Jack Novik.
''What is truly child pornography is ugly, vicious stuff,'' says Mr. Novik. But it should be fought through laws against child exploitation, not laws which ''diminish'' freedom of speech, he argues.
Both Horowitz and Novik see possible misuse of the Supreme Court's ruling by self-proclaimed moralist groups.
''There may now be a lot of gray areas'' in the law, says the ABA's Horowitz. ''That's the danger of an exteme reading of the case,'' he adds.
For instance, some groups may try to ban sexual education materials and anything showing nude children, Novick says.
In a recent three-part series on child pornography in this newspaper, investigators were quoted saying they could not find child pornography on the shelves of adult bookstores, apparently because of state and federal laws against it. The bulk of child pornography appears to be the homemade material swapped back and forth among ''collectors,'' a trade that has proved virtually impossible to crack.
It is a secretive industry and few states have given it the attention to crack it, investigators say.
The Supreme Court ruling will likely ''drive them (child pornographers) further underground,'' says Paul Daly, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Albany, N.Y. His office led the recent crackdown on a North Syracuse, N.Y., film processor now accused of doing a massive mail-order business in child pornography. No indictments have been issued but some are considered likely.
At the same time, the ruling will clarify the constitutionality of state laws which ban child pornography whether it is found to be obscene or not, says Mr. Daly.
The bookstore owner in the case decided by the Supreme Court had been found not guilty by a jury on charges of promoting an obscene sexual performance. But the two films, which had been purchased by undercover agents, were found to violate the state law against child pornography.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that a 12-year-old boy photographed in a sexual act ''surely suffers the same psychological harm whether the community labels the photography 'edifying' or 'tasteless.' ''
Child pornography is ''a serious national problem,'' said Justice Byron R. White, who wrote the opinion. He wrote that the usual obscenity standard ''does not reflect the state's particular and more compelling interest in prosecuting those who promote the sexual exploitation of children.''