Justice Department cracks down on adult porn industry Civil libertarians allege censorship. Conservatives say initiative is needed.

Posted: April 04, 2004

WASHINGTON — Arriving at work most mornings with a Starbucks in hand, Lam Nguyen switches on his computer and begins trolling for porn.

As a high-tech investigator for the Justice Department, Nguyen surfs for the worst of the worst. Until recently, that mostly meant tracking down child pornography. But the Justice Department has begun aggressively policing adult pornography as well, a change from the Clinton administration, which pursued almost no such cases.

So far, the Bush administration has a perfect record in the 25 adult-obscenity cases it has filed. The cases, brought in mostly conservative communities across the country, ended in two guilty verdicts and 23 guilty pleas. Charges are pending in a dozen other cases.

And the crackdown is expanding. Earlier this year, Attorney General John Ashcroft put noted antiporn crusader Bruce Taylor on the Justice Department payroll as a senior counsel for the criminal division on obscenity issues. And President Bush's 2005 budget proposal contains $4 million to hire more prosecutors and FBI agents devoted to targeting adult obscenity.

Free-speech advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union worry that the Justice Department is engaging in censorship. And a representative of the adult entertainment business accuses Ashcroft of pandering to the Republican conservative base before the presidential election.

"It's so transparently political," said lawyer Jeffrey Douglas, chairman of the Los Angeles-based Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the multibillion-dollar adult entertainment industry. "With this administration, if the results of other kinds of wars aren't working, you go to the culture wars."

Law "hasn't changed"

Andrew Oosterbaan, chief of the Justice Department's child exploitation and obscenity section, said the department simply was enforcing the law. "We are not the moral police," he said. "The [obscenity] law has been on the books forever. It's been weighed and determined and considered by the Supreme Court long, long, long ago. . . . The Internet has changed the way the law is broken, but it hasn't changed the law."

Under Attorney General Janet Reno, the Justice Department concentrated the department's obscenity resources almost exclusively on child pornography.

Antiporn activists say that neglect - combined with the explosion of the Internet - allowed the X-rated industry to flourish.

"The only thing that this industry listens to is the crack of the whip, and for eight years there was a window of 'anything goes,' " said Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough Is Enough, a Virginia-based group dedicated to online children's-safety issues.

The Supreme Court has held that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. But exactly what is obscene is somewhat subjective. The high court said in 1973 that for material to be obscene, the average person, applying community standards, must find it patently offensive and without artistic or scientific merit.

100,000 Web sites

Reliable estimates about the size of the pornography industry are hard to come by, but antiporn advocates say all you have to do is log on to the Internet to get a sense of how readily available pornographic material is. One recent study by the National Research Council, a branch of the private, nonprofit National Academies, estimated that there were 100,000 pornography Web sites.

"Parents are scared to death of the Internet," said Oosterbaan, who led the violent-crimes unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami before going to Washington. "They know their kids need to use the Internet to be successful in the world. But they are also frightened about them seeing things online that they are not ready to handle."

So far, the Justice Department appears to be targeting mostly very graphic pornography depicting violence, simulated rapes and bestiality.

The highest-profile case federal prosecutors have brought is against Extreme Associates, a Los Angeles adult-video company that bills itself as the "Hardest Hard Core on the Web."

The August 2003 indictment charges owners Robert Zicari and Janet Romano with multiple counts of using the mail and the Internet to distribute obscene materials. If convicted, they face up to 50 years in prison and $2.5 million in fines.

The case is being tried not in Los Angeles, but in Pittsburgh, where some of the videos ended up. Most of the cases the Justice Department has brought so far have been in conservative areas, where a community is more likely to be offended by the material, rather than in liberal-leaning big cities.

Jan LaRue, chief legal counsel for Concerned Women for America, a Christian public-policy organization, said she was encouraged that the Justice Department was getting serious again about prosecuting the adult-porn industry. But she said it had yet to go far enough.

"They need to prosecute some of the more mainstream material - not just the deviant stuff - and they need to go after some bigger targets," LaRue said.

She said she expected Bruce Taylor's arrival at the Justice Department to mean bigger cases, against such targets as Fortune 500 hotel chains carrying pay-per-view porn in their rooms, and cable providers that show hard-core movies.

Taylor was until recently president of the National Law Center for Children and Families in Virginia. He has worked on about 700 obscenity cases in his 30-year legal career, which included a stint in the Justice Department's child exploitation and obscenity unit from 1989 to 1993, under the first President Bush. In 1981, he represented the state of Ohio before the Supreme Court in the case against flamboyant Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.

In a 2002 interview with PBS he laid out a zero-tolerance approach, and indicated that if cable or Internet companies were making deals with porn producers or distributors, "then they are breaking the law just like the pornographers are."

Contact reporter Shannon McCaffrey at 202-383-6164 or smccaffrey@krwashington.com.

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