When Does a Picture Become Child Pornography?

That has been much ado lately about child pornography - and the firestorm against this abominable practice is well deserved. There is very little that can offend the minds of most people as quickly and thoroughly as the prospect of children being sexually exploited by adults. Our instinct to protect our children, our nieces and nephews, or grandchildren, our cousins, often come pouring out with righteous purpose when we hear of yet another pervert who has been arrested for possessing child pornography. I have written about the sad prevalence of children being sexually exploited on more than one occasion myself, because the topic is quite worthy of outrage.

But consider the case of Billy Miller, an Illinois National Guard soldier stationed in Afghanistan who has been charged with possessing child pornography and faces court martial because of photos discovered on his computer. The photos are of a little girl in a swimsuit, in some pictures playing in a wading pool, in others in the back of a truck. On one of the pictures, the girl's buttocks are partially exposed.

These pictures were sent to Billy Miller by his mother Terri Miller. They are family pictures of a younger relative of his, who he took an interest in when she was diagnosed with cancer while her own father was in boot camp. Terri Miller had hoped that the pictures would help ease her son's homesickness while stationed abroad. Terri Miller says that when she sent the pictures, she considered them perfectly innocent. The same pictures are on many family members' computers and Facebook pages. In light of the charges her son now faces for possessing she is overcome with grief.

"You have no clue how it eats me up", said Terri Miller, crying in her interview with the media. "I blame myself every day, every day, if I wouldn't have sent the pictures he would be home."

In other cases, parents are charged with producing or distributing child pornography when they develop or share pictures of their children in the bath or shirtless. These pictures, when they are reviewed, can be very troubling from a legal stand point. The children may not seem sexualized, they are not shown engaged in inappropriate situations. But they are naked, and found in other contexts, would certainly be troubling. While arrests are relatively rare, it is not unheard of for a photo lab to report developing photos which in turn lead to the arrest of unsuspecting parents.

It's troubling that there is no legal way to make the distinction between some of these "innocent" family photos and pornography. While crime labs may try, there is an unfortunate grey area to be found there.

At what point do pictures of children being innocent children, living their lives and enjoying their family become inappropriate. A child in a swimsuit playing in a wading pool? Should we want to control this because it's in some way inherently obscene? That would be a rather sad commentary on how we, as adult, project sexuality onto children. With the proliferation of cameras in cell phones and the ease of sharing photos with friends and relatives, exposing private family moments, we as a society find ourselves negotiating a difficult path between the understandable - and laudable - goal of protecting children from exploitation, and allowing children and families to capture their precious memories.

I would be interested to hear opinions and commentary on the case of Billy Miller and other similar cases where one family’s photo became a law enforcer’s child pornography case.

One final note: I've written about this here before and I will mention it again now. If you are an adult and feel that a child is being exploited or abused in anyway, it is your duty to act. Is it better to be wrong and embarrassed or right and a hero? When you say nothing, you are risking a child's health, happiness and perhaps even her life. Visit this post from our archive to find out what you can do when you suspect a child is being exploited.