May 24, 2000 12:00am
Antiporn Activists Descend on DC
Source: Wired News
by: Declan McCullagh
WASHINGTON -- These are trying times for an antiporn activist. A federal judge has barred the Justice Department from prosecuting most sex sites, the Communications Decency Act has been overturned, and this week the Supreme Court struck down a cable TV sex-scrambling law.
But that didn't stop anti-porn advocates from descending on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, lurid printouts in hand, to demand that something be done about raunch and ribaldry on the Internet.
"I'm here to make an appeal for you to do anything and everything that is possible to hinder this horrible industry," said Joseph Burgin, a self-proclaimed ex-porn addict who said smut was to blame for his divorce and $100,000 in legal fees. Burgin said that sex sites had made his "addiction" even more terrible.
To the Republicans who control the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee, Burgin's tale of woe provided ample evidence that prurience had run amok -- and the Clinton administration was to blame.
"Frankly, I think the Justice Department's record on prosecuting obscenity and indecency on the Internet is appalling," said Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana), the subcommittee chairman.
Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia), the full committee chairman, agreed. "I do not feel that the Justice Department has done enough in this area.... It is important to help the many folks who have fallen prey to the massive amounts of obscene material available over the Internet," he said.
Justice Department representatives who testified said they were more than happy to prosecute sex fiends -- but had concentrated on child pornography instead of obscenity.
"The resources have gone toward fighting child pornography, which is the most vile form of obscenity," said Alan Gershel, deputy assistant attorney general.
The distinction isn't merely academic.
A 1974 Supreme Court decision, Miller v. California, says the government may limit the distribution of obscene material that is offensive, prurient, and has no "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
Thus, the obscenity law was broad enough to convict Mike Diana, a cartoonist, for gruesome drawings.
Child pornography law is narrower, and bans the distribution or possession of images that include the "lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area." Even though some appeals courts have declared videotapes of clothed girls in leotards to be "child pornography," it still doesn't cover nearly as many websites as obscenity law does.
So it's no surprise that antiporn activists were upset.
Janet LaRue, senior director of legal studies at the Family Research Council, claimed that perverts can view porn in public libraries, and more obscenity prosecutions would solve that problem.
"What we're asking is that the existing obscenity laws be enforced," LaRue said. "If this is the case, then we believe the other problems will take care of themselves."
LaRue tried to introduce as evidence a series of JPEGs she downloaded to show panel members how explicit some of the sites were.
Tauzin, the subcommittee chair, hesitated and said he didn't know whether it was appropriate to accept as evidence material that might be deemed obscene by the very laws that they were there to debate. After conferring with the subcommittee's attorney, Tauzin said he could accept the material but not let anyone else make copies.
The Supreme Court in 1997 overturned key portions of the Communications Decency Act, which restricted "indecent" material online. A federal judge in February 1999 ruled that another law, the Child Online Protection Act, was also unconstitutional.
No court, however, has overturned obscenity laws.
Robert Flores, vice president and senior counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families, also asked for more obscenity prosecutions.
"Obscenity merchants have gotten so bold due to lack of enforcement that they have gone public! And I mean IPOs!" Flores said.
"If we had a national standard," he said, "then each community would be forced to abide" -- something that civil libertarians say would limit New York City publishers to distributing what's acceptable to Bible Belt prosecutors.
No proponents of free speech were invited to testify. Nicholas Morehead contributed to this report.