Research or Child Pornography?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
JOURNALIST LAWRENCE C. MATTHEWS was at his home computer in Silver Spring, Maryland, at 1:13 a.m. September 19, 1996, when he sent an image over the Internet of a 7- or 8-year-old naked girl involved in a lewd sexual act. Unbeknownst to Matthews, the recipient, "Blonde 1024," was a federal law enforcement officer.
It was one of more than 150 images of underage children having sex that Matthews, 55, sent and received between July and December 1996, according to FBI agents. He could often be found in a chat room called "Preteen," where child pornography is frequently traded, according to court records.
"While in the chat rooms, Matthews would use screen names such as Mr. Mature, Dd4SubFem and LCMinMD," records say. "Once in the chat room, Matthews would ask that other members in the chat room send him, via computer, graphic files containing visual depictions of child pornography." Other times, agents say, he had sexually explicit computer conversations with individuals pretending to be 13- or 14-year-old girls.
On December 11, 1996, armed FBI agents searched Matthews' house, confiscated three computers, a scanner, disks and a printer, and later retrieved pornographic pictures from his hard drive. Last July, Matthews entered a conditional guilty plea to two counts of trafficking in child porn. In March, Matthews, who now works as a temporary producer for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and fined $4,000.
The fact that the respected 30-year veteran radio journalist sent and received kiddie porn is not in dispute. But his motivation in doing so is.
Matthews, who is appealing his sentence, says he was working on a freelance article about child pornography on the Internet. He had done a similar story in 1995 while working for WTOP-AM radio in Washington, D.C., and after leaving the station, says he wanted to update the story for a freelance piece. Although he says he'd talked to editors about selling the story, he had no contract, which is not unusual for a freelancer. His involvement with child pornography was strictly for research, he says.
"I am not a pedophile, and there's not any evidence to indicate I ever had any personal interest in this in the past," says Matthews, the father of four. "I had done the story before for WTOP, and I wanted to see what else is under this rock. Is it simply people trading pictures or is it evidence of something more sinister?"
Matthews says he found that the FBI couldn't seem to do much to stop child pornography on the Internet, and in fact, he contacted the FBI several times when he became concerned about some of what he saw.
But U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr. saw the journalist's actions differently. Last June, he refused to let Matthews use the First Amendment as a defense. Federal law makes it illegal for anyone to possess or distribute child pornography, with the exception of law enforcement officials. "The law is clear that a press pass is not a license to break the law," Williams wrote in his June 29 opinion.
At Matthews' sentencing in March, the judge acknowledged that Matthews is a "very highly regarded journalist" and that there's no evidence Matthews had "sexual problems or any perversion issues." What concerned Williams, he said, was that Matthews had no contract for a story, and possessed no notes, memoranda, story drafts or evidence of interviews.
"I believe Mr. Matthews crossed the line here," Williams said at a two-day hearing in March. "He says it was embarrassing. He says he used poor judgment. He crossed the line. What he did was not only criminal and illegal, but it also, in my judgment, was immoral."
Matthews denies that. "On the one hand, you have the judge saying I'm not a pedophile and I'm a distinguished journalist," says Matthews. "On the other hand, the judge said he wasn't satisfied I was working on a story. But I was researching a story. I did talk to people about selling a story. The real point is the judge has decided that after six months, since I didn't have a draft or a contract, somehow or other I did something wrong. That doesn't sound fair to me."
Matthews has the support of several First Amendment lawyers, scholars and journalism groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and NPR, as well as journalists such as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg and Vanity Fair contributing editor Ann Louise Bardach. Bardach testified at Matthews' hearing as an expert witness on how investigative reporting works, and the ACLU has filed an amicus brief. "He's personally very sympathetic," says Barbara Bradley, an NPR reporter who knows Matthews. "I have a hard time believing he's a child pornographer."
That support doesn't impress U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, one of the prosecutors. "I think this case is more dangerous for your community if it makes journalists think that the First Amendment is a shield for illegal behavior," she says. "There's no journalist I know that would say the First Amendment is a shield for behavior like robbing a bank. Transmission of child porn is of such a level that everyone understands, like robbing a bank, it's illegal."
Matthews will appeal his sentence on the grounds that Williams erred in not allowing use of the First Amendment defense. In two other U.S. District courts, the First Amendment was allowed as a defense by two different people who had been caught trafficking child pornography over the Internet. One case was heard in New York in 1995, and the other in Maine in 1997.
"Neither, by the way, was successful," says Matthews. "But then neither involved a working journalist."