In response to a storm of media attention that put the issue of child pornography on the national agenda, Congress passed the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977. Originally designated the Kildee-Murphy bill, it was the first piece of national legislation specifically prohibiting child pornography. Courts later upheld the law from First Amendment and other challenges.

The controversy that led to the legislation began in 1976, when NBC News correspondent Robin Lloyd published For Money or Love: Boy Prostitutes in America, which suggested that child pornography was a huge and growing business. Judianne Densen-Gerber, founder and director of the drug treatment program Odyssey House, used the book to help mobilize public opinion on the issue. Media outlets such as 60 Minutes and the New York Times ran stories. In the House of Representatives, Democrats Dale E. Kildee of Michigan and John M. Murphy of NewYork proposed a bill to ban the trade. The legislation carried a maximum fine of $50,000 and up to twenty years in prison for anyone convicted of filming or photographing children engaged in sexual acts. The House unanimously approved the bill.

The states followed suit by passing their own versions of legislation prohibiting anyone from employing or inducing a minor to participate in sexual conduct or in the making of pornography. The Supreme Court upheld a state ban in New York v. Ferber (1982), reasoning that child pornography was directly linked to the actual sexual abuse of children. Congress continued to strengthen the federal ban through-out the 1980s by passing a series of related bills.

With the widespread use of the Internet, child pornography flourished. Congress reacted by passing legislation tailored to combat online child pornography. In 1988 it passed the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act, which criminalized the transmission, distribution, or reception of child pornography through a computer, and followed up in 1990 with the Child Protection Restoration and Penalties Enhancement Act, which expanded criminal prohibitions to the knowing possession of child pornography. A third act, the Child Pornography Prevention Act (CPPA), was passed in 1996 to ban “virtual” child pornography. The Supreme Court struck down two of its provisions, however, in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002).

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