I thought it was done. You might have thought I was done writing about it, at least. I thought the battle of AB1775, a droplet in the public consciousness, was over, and that our side had lost.
Our side is comprised of therapists, mostly, and a few of our clients. Everyone else—police, politicians, parents’ groups, the public at large, I guess—thought it a piece of legislation that was long overdue. Ever since 1980, when the original Child Abuse and Neglect Act (CANRA) was passed, everyone seemed to think it common sense and only too right that creators and distributors of child pornography ought to be prosecuted, and not only prosecuted, but outed by psychotherapists who hear of these pornographers’ behaviors in their offices.
Then something interesting happened. Thirty plus years later someone noticed that users, or viewers of child pornography were not being reported. Or, therapists weren’t sure if they ought to report these people, because the Civil Code didn’t stipulate as such. So, here’s what happened: A lawyer or two for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) decided to write a law (AB1775) with the help of law enforcement, and send it to the California legislature for a rubber stamp. The law inserted the words “streaming”, “download”, and “viewing” into a section outlining criteria for reporting child exploitation. The law was indeed rubbed stamped—a 72 to zero vote. Most of CAMFT’s thirty thousand-deep membership learned of the bill’s existence a month prior to its passing, in a newsletter release pertaining to legislation CAMFT was supporting.
The law went into effect Jan 1st, 2015, but before long it was being challenged in court by, among others, my friend and colleague, Don Matthews, in a law suit aimed at Kamala Harris, then the attorney general of California. The plaintiffs asserted that child porn users in general do not perpetrate ‘hands on’ or direct contact offenses; that those who voluntarily (a crucial point here) seek therapy do so because they want to stop the behavior and are thus seeking help. The plaintiffs’ case in Matthews v. Harris (there are two other therapists on the suit) was struck down in Superior court, and again in appeal, leading many to think that AB1775 was here to stay. But this week we have news that the California Supreme Court has decided to review the case once again. I hope they will consider the case differently than previous judges have.
Here’s a review of opinion: Superior Court judge Michael Stern upheld the law, finding that no constitutional right to use child porn existed, and that viewers of child porn can have no reasonable expectation of privacy, given their (likely) awareness that such behavior is socially unacceptable and criminal. Court of appeals judge Roger Bern echoed that possession is not a right and added that requiring therapists to report possession is not significantly different from requiring therapists to report those who create child porn. Judges further contend that reports to authorities may block the proliferation of child porn, and finally, that just because child porn users haven’t directly harmed children in the past doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.
Well, where to start. Firstly, it’s frustrating that judges would predicate their assessment of therapists’ obligations on whether a client or patient’s disclosures are of criminal behavior, the criminality of which is presumably understood. How is it possible that no one has explained that there are numerous crimes, including heinous ones like murder, that therapists are NOT legally obliged to report to authorities if the disclosures pertain to past events? Therefore, the criminality itself, known or otherwise, of a disclosure, is clearly NOT sufficient grounds for a confidentiality violation, and never has been.
Well, what about children? Isn’t the salient factor in the disclosures targeted by AB1775 the harm aimed at this protected class of citizen?
Yes. However, there are two problems with this “shouldn’t protecting children be our top priority” argument. The first is my own idiosyncratic (perhaps) bias: if we were to persecute everyone whose consumption of products enabled the exploitation of children, then we’d be exposing large sections of our internationally-reaching consumer society. To isolate one industry is not judicious discrimination; it is scapegoating, and (especially with respect to teen pornography) staggeringly hypocritical. The second problem concerns something else that is little considered: that lawyers and clerics, two occupational classes that hear their fair share of child porn disclosures, are exempt from the requirement to report child abuse, including child porn use. Lawyers simply do not appear on the Civil Code’s list of mandated reporters. Priests and other clerics do appear on this list, but are exempted from reporting through the loophole of code 11166 (c) if disclosures are made within a “penitential communication” (i.e.: a confessional)
So much for “shouldn’t protecting children be our top priority”
Next, if we think reports to authorities will block the proliferation of child porn, can we check that supposition given that the law has now been in effect for two and a half years? I’ve made some effort personally in this area, calling child protective services offices, plus an internet crimes task force based within the San Jose Police Department. My efforts have not yielded results. Officials have either not returned my calls, or not known the answer to my questions, or they have passed my questions on to other officials, who also do not answer my calls. No one seems able to even estimate how many reports have been made of child porn use in the last two years, whether in response to the new legislation or not. Also, with respect to blocking proliferation, how does that work if, like most of the electronica we purchase, the child porn is being produced and disseminated from overseas? Has California’s law dented the child porn industries of Thailand or Russia in any way that is discernible?
Finally, with respect to Judge Bern’s last point, since when do we persecute people on the basis of what they might do? If you get picked up by police for committing a relatively minor crime, are subsequent punishments justified because they seek to prevent a presumed escalation of criminal behavior?
Wait. The voices of immigrants, people of color–two classes of people that are slightly more popular than users of child porn–are suddenly in my head. Of course we persecute people on the basis of what they might do.