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The effective social limits set informally by the flap over the recent Calvin Klein jean ads would be undermined rather than reinforced if the U.S. Justice Department really does go to the extreme of filing criminal charges.

The Justice Department is said, seriously, to be considering child pornography charges against - well, someone, everyone or anyone. Perhaps the company, or at least its ad people, or maybe Klein himself.Even to consider a criminal investigation is an excess, however.

The problem here is not just overreaching by the law but that over-reaching would weaken the social sanctions that kicked in against the ad campaign - sanctions that are far more effective in patrolling the limits of decorum than all the busy prosecutors on the political make put together could ever be.

The sexy ads featuring either young teens or older ones who look young hit a national gag reflex that within days had the campaign being pulled out of circulation.

If, cynically, the Klein folks got all the wallop they could have hoped for, even from the abruptly terminated campaign, small matter. The effect will be to keep other advertisers from following the same path.

The fear of public revulsion at a product is by far a more convincing deterrent than the threat of a dubious prosecution.