UNITED STATES v. MICHAEL WILLIAMS | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Does the PROTECT Act abridge First Amendment freedom of speech by prohibiting offers and requests of materials believed to be child pornography?

Action

Reversed. The PROTECT Act was upheld as being not overbroad under the First Amendment and not impermissibly vague under the Due Process Clause.

Facts/Syllabus

In 2004, a special agent entered an internet chat room to combat online child exploitation. The agent, under an alias, engaged in a private chat with Michael Williams and exchanged photos with him. Williams shared a hyperlink with the agent that contained several images of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Williams was arrested and charged with violations of the PROTECT Act, including the pandering of “material or purported material in a manner that reflects the belief, or that is intended to cause another to believe” that the material is illegal child pornography. Williams filed a motion to dismiss the charges as unconstitutionally overbroad and vague. The Eleventh Circuit agreed with Williams and struck down the pandering portion of the PROTECT Act as unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.

Importance of Case

The Court held that offers to provide or requests to obtain child pornography do not fall within the scope of First Amendment protection. Offers to engage in illegal transactions are categorically excluded from First Amendment protection because they have no social value. Because the First Amendment is not at issue in this case, the lower court erred in applying strict scrutiny review. The PROTECT Act is also not void for vagueness because its requirements were clear and could be understood by potential violators.

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