Federal Government Renews Effort to Curb Porn

The Justice Department is pressing ahead with plans to step up its prosecution of obscenity cases, and it has come up with new rules intended to put the brakes on Internet porn.

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The Justice Department is pressing ahead with plans to set up prosecution of obscenity cases. That's despite some serious setbacks. Earlier this year, a federal judge threw out the government's case against two of the industry's most notorious producers of graphic videos. The government is appealing and has also come up with new rules intended to stop Internet porn. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Last May, just months after he'd taken over as attorney general, Alberto Gonzales told the National Press Club he was expanding the department's anti-porn efforts with the creation of an obscenity prosecution task force.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General): This task force will be staffed with our best and brightest, prosecutors with expertise not only in obscenity prosecutions but also in racketeering, money laundering and computer crimes.

ABRAMSON: The Bush administration has racked up 40 obscenity convictions since 2001 against just four cases during the entire Clinton administration. But earlier this year, that effort suffered a major defeat when a judge threw out charges against Robert Zicari and Janet Romano. The founders of Extreme Associates, Inc. are known for portrayals of rape and sex so edgy, it can't really be described here. Zicari and Romano seem to be asking for a jail sentence by thumbing their noses at the government. But their attorney, Louis Sirkin, says, instead, the case proved that the anti-porn campaign is not really about crime.

Mr. LOUIS SIRKIN (Attorney): Any argument that can be made--and, to me, at least, in the year 2005--that said people shouldn't be able to get certain types of material that's consenting adults and so on, there's only one justification for that argument, and that's morality.

ABRAMSON: Judge Gary Lancaster of the 3rd Circuit agreed, saying there was no government interest in blocking even the most graphic adult porn if it was simply going to be viewed by consenting adults. He went even further, saying that now that the Supreme Court has struck down laws against sodomy, in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case, quote, "the government can no longer justify legislation with enforcement of a moral code," unquote. The Justice Department will appeal next month and would not discuss this case so close to oral arguments. Anti-porn crusaders say they were stunned by the ruling. But Robert Peters, of the group Morality in Media, says prosecution of obscenity must continue if only to force the porn business to keep a lower profile.

Mr. ROBERT PETERS (Morality in Media): I would be very happy to see all hard-core pornography prohibited, and I'll tell you, that would still leave a lot of sexual material out there that, in my opinion, is pornographic and harmful, but that's part of the compromise.

ABRAMSON: But some Web sites that don't see themselves as pornographic are concerned they'll be swept up in the Justice Department's net. The government now wants to require that any Web site with suggestive content keep copious records to prove that all images are of adults, not children. Gay Web sites and dating sites say they have no control over the images that people post, and are hoping a court challenge will at least limit the scope of the regulations. Ira Rothken is the attorney of FriendFinders.com, a dating site with 19 million active members who post millions of images of themselves in search of companionship.

Mr. IRA ROTHKEN (Attorney): And it would be impractical for FriendFinders staff to review them all. We would need warehouses full of people to be able to do that.

ABRAMSON: The Justice Department says enforcement will focus on sites that manufacture pornography, not on dating sites, and that this effort will help drive child pornographers out of business. But Michelle Freridge of the Free Speech Coalition says the government is confusing child pornographers with people who are simply interested in sexual content.

Ms. MICHELLE FRERIDGE (Free Speech Coalition): If the government would spend half the time that they spend and half the money that they spend chasing constitutionally protected, legal adult speech and spent that on actually enforcing the child pornography laws, they would benefit children tremendously.

ABRAMSON: Freridge is not alone in asking how the department can take resources away from terrorism and give them to the war on porn, but many prosecutors do not see this as a tradeoff. John E. Sutton is the US attorney for western Texas. He won a major obscenity conviction last year.

Mr. JOHN E. SUTTON (US Attorney): Obviously, fighting terrorism and keeping the people safe from attack is our number-one priority, but it doesn't mean that we can't also do the other things that we've done for a long time, which is protect the border, keep people from robbing banks and white-collar fraud, as well as obscenity.

ABRAMSON: The porn industry has recognized there is little they can do to still this administration's anti-porn ardor. Instead, the industry is lobbying lawmakers in Washington and in California, trying to ensure that no new laws are passed that make it harder to do business. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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