DES MOINES - Kids will be kids, and with the proliferation of Internet access, kids will look at sexual materials on the web - but if Iowa state Rep. Mary Mascher has anything to say about it, parents who know their kids are looking at online porn will do some time in the slammer.
"They're exposed at a very early age and the bill will leave no doubt in your mind the materials they're seeing are extremely offensive," Mascher told KCCI News.
KCCI identifies the proposal as House File 433, but that file actually relates to medical assistance for the elderly, and a search of the legislature's database does not reveal any House File dealing with online viewing of adult material by children.
However, Senate File 271 is more on point.
Designated "An Act relating to access to obscene materials and child in need of assistance proceedings and child abuse reporting," the bill would "modif[y] the definition of 'child in need of assistance' to include situations where a parent, guardian, or other custodian, allows the child access to obscene material as defined in Code section 728.1, or such material has been disseminated or exhibited to the child by the parent, guardian, other custodian, or person responsible for the care of the child."
However, while that bill does not seem to include criminal penalties for the parent or guardian allowing their charges to view porn, it indicates that those acts are already crimes: "Under Code section 728.2, disseminating or exhibiting obscene material to a person under age 18 is a serious misdemeanor criminal offense. Code chapter 728 includes other offenses involving a child's access to obscene materials."
Senate File 271 also does not appear to distinguish between a parent knowingly providing access and "indirectly" providing such access by, for instance, leaving a computer monitor on with a page of adult content showing, or even leaving a copy of Hustler or Playboy lying around the house.
"As far as an accidental find, I think there would be a defense because there would have to be criminal intent with any of these statutes to get a conviction, so you'd have to do something at least recklessly to make the material available," opined First Amendment attorney Lawrence Walters, whose practice deals extensively with online issues. "Negligence doesn't suffice for a criminal conviction. So there would have to be some element of 'knowingly.'"
Walters also worries about how, if such a law were enacted, the child's viewing of adult material would be revealed.
"It could come about in the context of legitimate therapy that a child is receiving it," Walters noted, "and any of these mandatory reporting laws try to strike a balance between the trust that needs to be established between the counselor and the child and the need to report legitimate sex abuse. In some areas, legislatures have created exemptions that say the counselor has to report any sex abuse, and then they qualify this as sex abuse: Providing pornography to children. And then all of a sudden it comes out and the counselor has to report it every time the kid says, 'Yeah, daddy showed me his Hustler.'"
"I for one would come down on the side that the counseling relationship and the trust aspect is more important than reporting the fact that some kid saw a pornographic magazine at some point when his parent was around," he continued. "I think that damages the relationship and undermines what good they're trying to do for the child, whereas if it was actual sex abuse or rape or mistreatment of the child physically or emotionally, then I can understand some exceptions being made to the ordinary confidentiality that the counseling setting is suppose to have."
Moreover, Walters is concerned about the motivation for such a law.
"I can see it as loophole closing, sure," he said. "They want to criminalize everything having to do with pornography that they can at least arguably legally do. And a lot of these 'harmful to minors' laws throughout the country talk in terms of 'retail display' or 'making available for commercial purpose' and that kind of thing. This closes that loophole, so if a parent just happens to have a Playboy laying around and says to his 15-year-old daughter or stepdaughter, 'Check this out and we can try it later,' theoretically that wouldn't be punishable by any of the 'harmful to minors' laws that currently exist, so they're trying to at least close up that loophole. Now, we all know that the real intent here is to create as many offenses related to pornography as possible, and these are all politically motivated and they're good for the right-wing red-meat crowd, and so they tend to sail through at least Republican-dominated legislatures, but as far as what the intent here is, whether it's closing a loophole, it just struck me as that."
Mascher, however, claims that her motives are pure, and that her target is parents who push porn on innocent children.
"It's a form of child abuse and it's one of the ways abusers manipulate and control children," she said.
According to the KCCI story, the bill is being reworked in a House subcommittee, and it is not known when the bill will be ready for submission to the full House.