``Lolita' came up in Supreme Court debate on Tuesday, as it often seems to do in discussions of child pornography. At issue was the Child Pornography Prevention Act, passed by Congress in 1966. The law was vigorously defended first by the Clinton administration and now by the Bush administration. Three out of four federal courts of appeals have upheld it, but the 9th Circuit, on the West Coast, held its basic provision unconstitutional.
The bone of contention is language that extends the federal law against pornographic images featuring minors to images of minors that are ``virtual' - computer-generated. The distinction is crucial because before 1996, the child porn law was designed to prevent exploitation of children by the makers of pornographic pictures.Defenders of the new law say pedophiles may use virtual child porn to seduce real children into sexual acts or pornographic photography. They feel it would be fruitless to argue that the stuff is simply disgusting in its own right.
On Tuesday, a skeptical Justice Antonin Scalia inquired from the bench, ``What great works of art would be taken away from us if we couldn't see minors copulating?' After some hesitation, the adult entertainment association's lawyer replied, ``Lolita.' He was clearly talking about a movie version of Vladimir Nabokov's novel.
``A great work of art!' exclaimed Scalia.
Controversies over the limits of free speech protection under the First Amendment rarely involve obvious examples of the kind of expression the drafters of the Constitution had in mind. Friction usually arises in the gray margins, the safety zone surrounding truly important speech. That's why the Supreme Court spends so much time arguing over pornography.
``Lolita' is an interesting example. The classic novel was made into a movie in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick. In 1967, a British director named Adrian Lyne did a remake, which, though it used an adult actress in the role of 12-year-old Lolita, ran afoul of the 1996 law. (It was eventually distributed only on cable TV by Showtime.)
Was this unconstitutional suppression of the ideas contained in ``Lolita?' Not really. Nabokov's novel is freely available, as is Kubrick's film. What's suppressed is a film too artless to have the act in question occur offstage.
The high court should uphold the 1996 law. Perhaps the court could do so in a way that helps clarify where the line is to be drawn.