WASHINGTON -- President Clinton rebuked the Justice Department yesterday for retreating from a wider legal definition of child pornography and ordered Attorney General Janet Reno to move "promptly" to draw up new legislation to ensure that federal law reaches all forms of child pornography.
The White House was caught off guard in September when U.S. Solicitor General Drew S. Days III advised the Supreme Court that the administration was backing away from an earlier, stricter definition of child pornography.
At issue is whether a child model must be nude or nearly nude to violate the child pornography law.
In his brief to the high court, Mr. Days said he would not seek to uphold the conviction of a Pennsylvania man convicted for owning three videotapes showing young girls posed suggestively in bathing suits and leotards.
That move immediately sparked fiery criticism from "pro-family" organizations, and the Senate repudiated it last week in a unanimous resolution.
The flap also has tarnished the standing of one of the administration's brightest legal stars, a former Yale law professor and one of the top-ranking blacks in the administration.
The Child Protection Act of 1984 defines child pornography as depictions of minors engaged in sexual conduct or the "lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area."
Prosecutors in the Reagan and Bush administrations employed a broad definition, contending that the law could be violated if known pornographers depicted minors posed suggestively in skimpy clothing.
Last year, those prosecutors won the conviction of Stephen Knox of State College, Pa., for owning videotapes in which child models posed seductively while wearing clothing.
An appeals court in Philadelphia upheld Knox's conviction by adopting the government's expansive definition of the 1984 law.
But in June, the Supreme Court announced it would hear Knox's appeal, and some attorneys came to his defense, arguing that the broad definition could lead to prosecutions over lingerie ads.
Rather than defend the conviction in Knox vs. U.S., Mr. Days told the court that the administration disagreed with the earlier view of the law. The solicitor general, the No. 4 official in the Justice Department, represents the administration before the Supreme Court.
Under Mr. Days' interpretation, the law would be violated if photos or tapes contain "a visible depiction of the genitals or public area" and show a "child lasciviously engaging in sexual conduct."
Since neither was true in the Knox case, he recommended that the conviction be vacated and the case dismissed. On Nov. 1, the court did just that.