NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 93-723. Argued October 5, 1994 -- Decided November 29, 1994

Respondents were convicted under the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977, which prohibits "knowingly" transporting, shipping, receiving, distributing, or reproducing a visual depiction, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(1) and (2), if such depiction "involves the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct," §§2252(a)(1)(A) and (2)(A). In reversing, the Ninth Circuit held, inter alia, that §2252 was facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it did not require a showing that the defendant knew that one of the performers was a minor.

Held: Because the term "knowingly" in §§2252(1) and (2) modifies the phrase "the use of a minor" in subsections (1)(A) and (2)(A), the Act is properly read to include a scienter requirement for age of minority. This Court rejects the most natural grammatical reading, adopted by the Ninth Circuit, under which "knowingly" modifies only the relevant verbs in subsections (1) and (2), and does not extend to the elements of the minority of the performers, or the sexually explicit nature of the material, because they are set forth in independent clauses separated by interruptive punctuation. Some applications of that reading would sweep within the statute's ambit actors who had no idea that they were even dealing with sexually explicit material, an anomalous result that the Court will not assume Congress to have intended. Moreover, Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 271, reinforced by Staples v. United States, 511 U. S. ___, ___, instructs that the standard presumption in favor of a scienter requirement should apply to each of the statutory elements which criminalize otherwise innocent conduct, and the minority status of the performers is the crucial element separatinglegal innocence from wrongful conduct under §2252. The legislative history, although unclear as to whether Congress intended "knowingly" to extend to performer age, persuasively indicates that the word applies to the sexually explicit conduct depicted, and thereby demonstrates that "knowingly" is emancipated from merely modifying the verbs in subsections (1) and (2). As a matter of grammar, it is difficult to conclude that the word modifies one of the elements in (1)(A) and (2)(A), but not the other. This interpretation is supported by the canon that a statute is to be construed where fairly possible so as to avoid substantial constitutional questions. Pp. 3-15.

982 F. 2d 1285, reversed.

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a concurring opinion. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined.