Obama administration fails obscenity test

Culture | Government prosecutors have tried only two adult obscenity cases since 2009, setting loose standards for the porn industry
by George Weaver
Posted 4/24/13, 09:45 am

Los Angeles is the capital of the movie industry, attracting a steady stream of both tourists and would-be stars. But the city’s lesser known title is capital of the pornography business.

Most pornographic activity goes unchecked, although in January a federal court in Los Angeles sentenced “shock artist” Ira Isaacs to four years in prison for distributing obscene films depicting adults engaged in bestiality and scatology.

Isaacs, a 60-year-old filmmaker from the South Bronx, N.Y., set up shop in Los Angeles in 1999 to advertise and sell fetish porn on numerous websites. The videos included one “approximately two hours in length of a female engaging in sex acts involving human bodily waste and a video one hour and 37 minutes in length of a female engaged in sex acts with animals,” according to a press release by the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) of the U.S. Department of Justice, which prosecuted the case.

After two mistrials, a jury found Isaacs guilty in April 2012 after applying the three-part obscenity test established by the Supreme Court’s Miller v. California ruling, which said the films had to appeal to the prurient interest; be patently offensive; and lack serious literary, artistic, political, and scientific value. 

Once Isaacs received his sentence, he boasted, “That's the Academy Award I just won in there. That’s an artist's dream.”

But under the Obama administration, Isaacs’s case is the exception rather than the norm. Only two adult obscenity cases, including Isaacs’, have been prosecuted since President Barack Obama took office, and both were indicted under the Bush administration, according to Morality in Media president Pat Trueman.

Pornography businesses cheered Obama’s reelection, with Adult Video News announcing his win with an expletive and saying a second Obama term “looks a whole lot better than the one [Mitt] Romney had in mind.” Romney promised obscenity laws would be “vigorously enforced” under a Republican administration. 

Pornographers have reason to celebrate: Of the cases highlighted by the CEOS in over 115 press releases issued in 2012 and the first three months of 2013, only Isaacs’ involved adult obscenity. The rest dealt with child pornography cases, which are easier to prosecute.

Experts believe the absence of adult obscenity prosecutions has led to a recent explosion of explicit material. While child porn has also proliferated, it is generally underground and kept at bay by aggressive child porn prosecutions. 

Roger Young, a former FBI special agent who worked to enforce federal obscenity laws for more than 23 years, said the  government’s non-prosecution policy “has caused material depicting adults to saturate the Internet and flood movie screens, television channels, and DVDs—setting the tone for our culture,” adding that children are being “exposed to this material at younger and younger ages.”

Young planned to return to the field as a part of the National Obscenity Prosecution Task Force set up during the Bush administration, but U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder closed it down after taking office in 2009. Young then formed a private consulting business from which he continues to lecture and work against obscenity. 

Young said the number of porn websites is difficult to estimate as the material is “effectively unregulated.” The Pink Cross Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with adult industry workers and sex trafficking victims estimates about 4.2 million pornographic sites exist. 

The Bush administration initiated a handful of other adult obscenity prosecutions—mostly involving extreme or fetish material. These included the shocking case of Dallas police officer Garry Ragsdale, indicted and convicted for selling videos of actual women being raped. He and his wife ran a website called “Rape Video Store,” featuring  the “Real Rape Series” and the “Brutally Raped Series.” 

Anti-obscenity activists don’t expect adult obscenity prosecutions to be revived in the second Obama term. Robert Peters, president emeritus of Morality in Media, said his organization is one of the few that fights pornography by encouraging enforcement of criminal obscenity laws: “In my opinion, federal and state obscenity laws can still be enforced. But committed, not token, enforcement is necessary.”

Isaacs is appealing his conviction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Given that court’s hostility to conservative social values, the outcome is uncertain—as is the future of adult obscenity prosecutions across the nation.

George Weaver

George, an attorney who lives in Atlanta, participated in the fall 2012 World Journalism Institute mid-career class.

Read more from this writer