A fundamental human characteristic seems to be the urge to protect and nurture young children. That’s one reason most of us react with a shiver of loathing at the very idea of child pornography. In an era of situational ethics and relative values, the sexual exploitation of pure, innocent children is still considered an unequivocal evil.

A buyer or viewer of child pornography is perhaps one step removed from the actual producer but is no less loathsome, because his or her perversion rewards and encourages the sexual exploitation of children. On these things, most everyone agrees.

So when the politicians in South Carolina passed that new law enlisting computer technicians in the battle against child pornography (Front Page), they no doubt were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to do the right thing.

True, one must wonder why they brought the measure to enactment without discussion or debate. It’s unclear why they felt the need to move so swiftly and so silently.

The move was so quick and quiet, in fact, it surprised even South Carolina insiders. One member of the South Carolina Senate–a co-sponsor of the bill, as it were–confided that the enactment of the reporting requirement took him completely by surprise. He learned of that provision only days before the governor signed the bill, he said.

“I don’t like it,” he said, “I’m afraid it may generate more problems than it solves.”

On that point we do agree, even though it seems likely the bill’s legislative managers probably labored under the best of intentions.

The road to hell, it’s been reported, is paved from end to end with good intentions. And we suspect the road South Carolina has embarked on now will be hell on wheels. It could get mighty bumpy for the state’s schools and computer technicians, too.

In our view, this law is a bad idea for at least half a dozen reasons:

  • False reports–both mistaken and intentional–will harm innocent persons, disrupt school operations, and damage staff cohesion.
  • IT staffers lack the training to make sensitive, controversial judgments about the legal status of computer content.
  • Enforcement will require schools to embark on costly and burdensome training and policy reviews unrelated to education.
  • Enforcement will distract IT professionals from their mission-critical responsibilities.
  • Enlisting IT professionals as adjunct law enforcement officials will undermine the trust computer users should place in technical personnel.
  • Today’s child-pornography reporting requirements could expand to include forms of communication less clearly criminal.

As currently framed, the law in South Carolina involves no penalties for lack of compliance. But that, said Sharon Gunter, staff attorney for the South Carolina Senate, is just an oversight. When the Legislature resumes its work next year, she said, she expects the law will be amended to include penalties of up to six months in jail and a fine of $500 for computer technicians who fail to comply.

Those are the same penalties now included in a law that requires film developers to report child pornography. Such statutes are on the books in many states. They can underscore the difficulty of judging what is pornographic and what is harmless.

Just last February, a New Jersey woman was arrested after an employee at a film-processing center alerted police to suspicious photographs. The woman was released after authorities determined the images were harmless photos of her grandchildren after a bath.

Had the woman been a teacher, had her arrest become news before all the facts were in, had the authorities dragged their feet releasing exculpatory information, a school district would have been thrown into turmoil, a reputation would have been destroyed, and a career would have been derailed.

The film developer who reported this poor woman to police probably acted with the best of intentions. But it wouldn’t have mattered one little bit.