Law of Sex
Isaacs Obscenity Case & Life Without Miller
In a not-so-surprising, albeit disappointing, decision affecting the adult entertainment industry, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the obscenity conviction of fetish producer, Ira Isaacs. Isaacs was originally charged with violating federal obscenity statutes in 2007, after the distribution of several of his fetish films via U.S. mail. Isaacs’s 2008 trial was placed on hold and eventually resulted in a mistrial, amid judicial controversy. Judge Alex Kozinski, who presided over the obscenity prosecution, recused himself within days of commencing the trial, after it was discovered that the Judge had been maintaining a personal humor website exhibiting sexually explicit images. After another attempt to try the case in 2011 was delayed when prosecutors added more charges, the Isaacs case eventually went to a full trial in March of 2012. For a second time, however, a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked on the verdict, 10-2 in favor of the government. The case was tried for a third time in April of 2012, which resulted in conviction and is the basis for the recent appeal.
In general, the Obama administration has been decidedly less interested in obscenity prosecutions than was its Republican predecessor. Since 2009, the administration’s prosecutors have tried only two adult obscenity cases, in contrast to the volumes of obscenity prosecutions that took place under President George W. Bush. Notably, Obama’s Department of Justice has not initiated any of its own obscenity prosecutions, but merely followed through with pending cases initially filed by the prior administration.
Isaacs’ most recent, unsuccessful appeal relied more on procedural due process arguments, as opposed to disputing his guilt of violating obscenity laws. The numerous due process claims were rooted in allegations of uncertainty directly related to the Miller Test; specifically, the concept of "prurient interest" as set out in the first prong of the test. According to the ruling, the District Court adopted a proposed jury instruction defining an “appeal to ‘prurient interest” as “an appeal to a morbid, degrading, and unhealthy interest in sex.” After a question was posed by a juror, the Court revised the instruction to read “morbid, degrading or unhealthy.” Isaacs argued that the change “undermined the credibility of his lawyer,” as the attorney, in closing argument, referred to the original instruction. The District Court rejected this contention, finding that the attorney had in fact used both formulations of the instruction during argument so it was “unclear how the revision might have implied to the jury that Isaacs misled it as to applicable law.” Further, the District Court noted that while Isaacs argued that it was error for the Court to correct the instruction, there was an obligation on the Court to clarify issues for the jury, so that they did not abuse their discretion in doing so.
The 1973 case Miller v. California established the standard that is still used today for what defines obscenity. The Miller test, as it is known, has three essential prongs:
- Whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest
- Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law and
- Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value
Miller has been a source of controversy and debate in the adult industry, since its inception. The difficulty with the average juror understanding and applying the inherently vague terms of the Miller test can produce unpredictable results. Unfortunately for Isaacs, the odds were against him from the beginning, given the nature of the content at issue. Scat material has typically been some of the most difficult to defend, and explain to juries who tend to be shocked when exposed to the content. While some fetish material has survived obscenity prosecution, this case resulted in a conviction, and now an affirmance on appeal.
Any time an adult industry participant is convicted of obscenity, discussions ensue regarding the continued viability of the Miller test in today’s world, and whether the industry should support a constitutional challenge to the test. Given the Supreme Court’s repeated validation of the Miller test for obscenity, even in recent years, it is unlikely to be changed any time soon. But even if the Court was inclined to replace the current obscenity test, the question becomes: With what? Outright abandonment of the well-entrenched concept of obscenity laws is an unlikely result of any such case brought to the Supreme Court, despite some of the encouraging language in Justice Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas. If the challenge was based on the claim that the Miller test was insufficiently clear for common understanding, one could envision the Court handing down a crystal clear, bright-line prohibition on the depiction of specific sex acts, fetish behavior, or BDSM activity, under the guise of more clearly defining obscenity for adult content producers. In situations like this, it is always wise to reflect on what the parties are really asking for – because they might just get it.
While Miller suffers from its vague concepts and outdated language, it has provided opportunities for creative arguments, and stunning victories. While the test is difficult on defendants, it is equally difficult for prosecutors, who are used to well-defined criminal offenses that are not dependent on notions of societal tolerance or considerations of literary value. Obscenity prosecutions have dwindled to a virtual halt in modern times, and the difficulty in applying the Miller test in today’s society may be partially to thank. The “community standards” element suffers from outdated concepts of unified values and social mores based on geography, which arise from something out of Andy Griffith or Leave it to Beaver. Today, neighbors have more in common with their Facebook friends spread out across the world than they do with their neighbor – most of whom they never met. Fortunately, the decision in U.S. v. Kilbride recognized this inherent weakness of using local community standards, and required juries to apply national standards – at least in online obscenity prosecutions. With tweaks like these, Miller may be more of a benefit than a hindrance to producers of erotic content, as compared to some other bright line test. Certainly, all obscenity laws are forms of censorship, and antithetical to First Amendment values. The Miller test does little to logically separate specific types of content from constitutionally protected speech. However, it may be as good as it gets for the time being, even if it results in the stray, unfortunate conviction.
So what’s next for Ira Isaacs and obscenity prosecutions? Isaacs recently petitioned the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear his case, with his lawyer arguing, among other things, that the case was not given the “special care that the First Amendment requires.” The likelihood of Isaacs’ petition for rehearing being granted, however, is slim. Assuming it is denied, the chances of the Supreme Court accepting the case are not promising, either. However, should the Court take interest in the case, it would likely be for the sole reason of again affirming the viability of the Miller obscenity test. For Isaacs and his counsel, they have every reason to try, and should not be faulted to doing everything in their power to undo the conviction. But in the off chance that the Supreme Court takes the case, it’s time to buckle up. If the decision results in anything other than a re-affirmance of Miller, things could get dicey.
Perhaps the Isaacs case will be the last federal obscenity prosecution for a while, as the futility of reigning in the human desire for sexual expression begins to set in for the DOJ. But as long as we have laws on the books that permit the government to put people in cages for making movies involving consenting adults, the guardians of liberty must remain ever-vigilant.
Title 18, U.S.C. Section 2257 (“2257”) has long been a thorn in the side of content producers and webmasters in the adult industry, but now, the controversial statute is being utilized in ways never intended by the drafters of the legislation. Purportedly created as an effort designed to prevent the proliferation of child pornography, 2257 has historically been used by the federal government as a tool to enforce producer compliance with its onerous record-keeping and labeling obligations designed to verify the age of models appearing in sexually-explicit imagery. Some records inspections have occurred by the Attorney General’s office, although actual prosecutions under the law have been essentially non-existent. Recently, however, the statute is being adopted by litigants, industry participants, and governmental agencies as a sword wielded against adult businesses, instead of the protective shield it was meant to be.
A little over two years ago, the industry witnessed the first use of 2257 in a copyright battle between two adult businesses in federal court. In a lawsuit filed by Ventura Content, Ltd. (a.k.a. Pink Visual) against the tube site Motherless.com, the former alleged, among other claims, that Motherless failed to maintain performer records as dictated by 2257 and failed to post the mandated disclosure statement on its website. The requested relief? Ventura asked the court to shut down the tube site based, in part, on its failure to comply with 2257.
Although the ability to protect against copyright infringement is an essential goal in the adult industry, insiders using 2257 as a weapon to battle each other in court sets a dangerous and unsettling precedent. The DOJ’s enforcement of 2257 is intimidating enough, but the thought of a litigation strategy designed to shut down adult media for violations of the statute would add a layer of credibility to 2257 that threatens the industry’s challenges to the statute, and is ultimately self-defeating.
Much more recently, in November of 2013, a John Doe defendant asked a court to examine Malibu Media’s 2257 records in order to, essentially, invalidate their copyright infringement claims against him. Doe was accused of illegally torrenting 19 of Malibu Media’s copyright films and in turn, made the claim that if a film is not accompanied by adequate 2257 records, then it may not be validly protected under copyright. The case is currently still pending.
Although Doe’s attorney’s strategy may have been a bit of a long shot (as it would be impossible to know the status of plaintiff’s 2257 records short of inspecting them himself), the point is not necessarily whether these 2257 abuse tactics are working, the concern is that they are being employed at all. While these instances of using 2257 to buttress industry infighting are the most prominent, there have been others and the trend is disturbing.
The abuse of 2257 unfortunately doesn’t stop with adult industry participants and John Doe defendants, however. Recently, unconfirmed reports indicated that Cal/OSHA has been subpoenaing 2257 records for various adult content producers with an insidious and ulterior motive: busting the companies for violating the LA County ordinance colloquially known as Measure B, requiring condom usage in adults scenes shot within the county limits. According to these reports, Cal/OSHA obtained the 2257 records in order to ascertain dates and times of shoots – information that would necessarily be contained in the 2257 records. Thus, the County would be able to confirm whether the producers are complying with Measure B and pulling the required permits. If it finds out they are not, Cal/OSHA can impose heavy fines. CAL/OSHA records do confirm that the companies are being investigated.
It seems as though instead of simply maintaining records to ensure age verification, adult industry producers now need to worry about a slew of ancillary legal concerns relating to their 2257 compliance. Any problems with a producer’s compliance regime could prevent them from enforcing their copyrights or result in an unfair competition claim by a ‘holier than thou’ company who claims perfect compliance. The problem is: there is no perfect compliance. The byzantine regulatory scheme created by Congress and the DOJ poses risks of technical violations for even the most diligent producer. Any effort to give credence to an ill-conceived law like 2257 is, at a minimum, bad karma, and at most a tacit admission of the validity of the law. My humble recommendation; leave 2257 out of the industry infighting, and adopt a cohesive position regarding the unconstitutionality of the burdensome federal statutory abortion we know as 2257.
Witnessing Transformation – Performers into Producers
The beginning of a new year in the adult entertainment industry is always filled with excitement, trade shows, and hopes for success in the year ahead. Now is also the time when the industry tries to identify upcoming trends in production and distribution of erotic content. Fresh in the minds of many performers and producers are the battles over condom laws, and production moratoria resulting from STD outbreaks. This, combined with advances in technology and plummeting DVD sales, has encouraged many performers to explore alternative forms of erotic entertainment to fill the gaps between shoots. Some choose escorting or headlining at strip clubs. But many others have turned to lucrative live webcam performances and custom video-production.
The effect of these erotic alternatives has been to cut out the middlemen; i.e., the talent agencies, producers, and photographers. All that’s required is a webcam, a good broadband connection, and a knack for turning on your target audience. Many webcam platforms and escort advertising networks allow the performer to take control of his or her content production and therefore, directly profit from the work. With a little creativity and work ethic, some performers have found that webcam performances or custom, amateur videos can be even more lucrative than professional porn shoots. The new middleman is the webcam platform provider or the clips sales studio.
Interestingly, as technology fosters a more one-on-one interaction, the tastes of typical erotica consumers have evolved as well. Why lust after the unattainable blonde bombshell, when that webcam performer with the ‘girl next door’ look might actually be the girl next door? The evolution of technology has allowed the performer to create, market, and distribute their material, all the while inviting customers into their reality. The average porn consumer now wants to know things like what their favorite performer had for breakfast, how they get dressed in the morning, and their plans for the evening. Call it a byproduct of a reality TV-obsessed culture, or just living in the age of social networking; all the world’s a stage and performers are more than willing to share the intimate details of their lives with customers. Ten years ago, an autographed DVD might have been a prized possession for a devoted fan. Now, last night’s panties are up for grabs – for the right price. Some performers may even go the extra mile and engage in intimate contact with fans on camera, as a promotional tool. The popularity of this type of interactive sex and performer/fan dynamic was even the focus of HBO’s premiere of SEX/NOW; the network’s reboot of Real Sex.
So what does this mean for the performer now turned producer of his or her own material? Most importantly, all of the legal obligations that used to be handled by the producer, photographer, talent agent or other intermediary now fall squarely on the performer. These legal concerns include Section 2257 records keeping compliance, content clearance, licensing of rights, copyright registration, fair use concerns and trademark issues. Can I show that painting in the background of my cam shot? Will the RIAA come after me if I play music during my cam show? Just because technology allows a seamless transition from performer to producer, does not necessarily mean that the law does the same.
Most cam performers are unaccustomed to dealing with these technical issues and mundane legal obligations – particularly if they have relied on professional producers to handle such matters in the past. In some ways, we’re all in the same boat. Anyone who posts a comment on Facebook, or a review on Amazon, is a worldwide publisher. Anyone who uploads a picture to a blog or forum is a media producer. That power triggers significant legal obligations. Issues like defamation, fair use, and commercial exploitation used to be the exclusive province of powerful media stakeholders like the New York Times or NBC. Now, these issues impact anyone with a smart phone or social networking account. Add on the additional layer of legal regulation imposed on erotic content, and performers can often become overwhelmed with compliance issues. With industry-specific devices and applications expressly designed to simplify the process of production and publication, technology can help ease the burden, but only to an extent. Autonomy requires proactive measures. If performers wish to capitalize on self-production trends and continue forging virtual relationships with their fan base, the keys to success are education and preventative solutions. The performer turned producer must learn to recognize the legal issues before they become legal problems.
Lawrence G. Walters heads up Walters Law Group which has advocated for the adult entertainment industry and Free Speech issues for 25 years. Nothing contained in this post is intended as legal advice.
Unspoken Words: The Chilling Effect of NSA Surveillance Abuses
In early 2012 when the news first went mainstream that the NSA was building its “Spy Center” in Utah, public reaction was much closer to Area 51-esque skepticism than the warranted level of alarm. However, recent events show that we can barely go a week without another accusation of the National Security Agency abusing its mass surveillance powers. Critics are blaming the Feds. The Feds are blaming the realities of the Digital Age. Me? Well, I’m blaming all of us.
‘Mass surveillance’ is the legitimized monitoring and data mining of people, governments, and businesses across the globe by the United States federal government. Ostensibly, its purposes range from furthering domestic intelligence and ensuring national security, to essentially whatever reason the NSA provides on any given day. So when it comes right down to it, mass surveillance means spying. Nothing new, right? Government agencies all over the world have used clandestine surveillance efforts to gather data for decades. So why the hysteria? Two words: the Internet. Per usual, the federal government is exploiting the lag between law and technology to further an allegedly altruistic agenda, while sacrificing basic civil liberties.
A quick and dirty breakdown of pre-Internet, U.S. surveillance policies: Regularly conducted by the FBI and/or CIA, domestic surveillance was typically subject to Fourth Amendment standards requiring a valid warrant. In contrast, overseas surveillance maneuvers were usually performed by the NSA and had very few restrictions. The veritable free-for-all of foreign intelligence operations was likely a result of the extremely covert nature of the surveillance, nonetheless, the NSA’s tactics weren’t questioned. Cut to the new millennium, where that distinct line separating foreign and domestic surveillance policies has been blurred into obscurity by the evolution of electronic communication and transactions. Intelligence data shows that millions of foreign citizens access American-based online services on the regular basis. The intermingling of foreign actors and U.S. citizens is unavoidable as the Internet is globally accessible. Taking advantage of this inevitability, the NSA is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Despite the potential for gross infringement of domestic privacy rights, the NSA maintained that flexibility was a key element in effective mass surveillance, but that Americans’ privacy was not at stake.
As much as we wanted to believe the NSA’s scout’s honor claiming to preserve domestic privacy rights, any benefit of the doubt was obliterated this past June when whistleblower, Edward Snowden became a household name. Snowden, a former NSA employee, took to the press and leaked classified information pertaining to the government’s mass surveillance operations. Snowden’s disclosures detailed the NSA’s tendency towards playing fast and loose with the U.S. Constitution, with certain intelligence programs teetering dangerously close the edge of legality. Within weeks of Snowden’s exposé, dozens of news stories surfaced alleging even more egregious abuses by the NSA’s analysts, ranging from allegedly inadvertent administrative oversights to willful violations for personal gain. As expected, the NSA came to the plate trashing Snowden and pledged to “review” the other allegations for intentional abuses, all the while guaranteeing that “most of the cases didn’t involve communications of Americans.” Suddenly I’m much more hesitant to take their word on that. How about you?
Honestly, I’ve always employed a healthy dose of skepticism when approaching statements and policies issued by the Feds. But all conspiracy theorist tendencies aside, all three branches of the federal government have repeatedly forgone the privacy rights of U.S. citizens in the name of mass surveillance. What’s even more unsettling is that such destructive tactics have obviously been occurring long before Snowden blew the proverbial whistle. For over a decade, federal agencies have executed a slow and steady expansion of their surveillance authority thanks to that legislative gift that keeps on giving: the PATRIOT Act. Each presidential administration since 2001 has exploited the notoriously controversial law to serve their respective political agendas, all under the auspices of ‘If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then don’t worry about it.” Overly invasive NSA surveillance programs like PRISM and XKeyscore undermine the fabric of public discourse, but were the inevitable progeny of knee-jerk reaction legislation like the PATRIOT Act.
The NSA continuing such expansive surveillance on its own people – especially with its current lack of legitimate oversight and public accountability – will undoubtedly result in a self-censorship backlash never experienced in the Information Age. Edward Snowden fled the U.S. as a fugitive and was forced to seek asylum in Russia. Journalists and publications involved in exposing the NSA’s compliance indiscretions are feeling the effects of intimidation tactics by law enforcement across the globe. The chilling effect of simply knowing that the NSA may be logging every key stroke, monitoring every email, and storing every credit card transaction, cannot be understated. Blogs shutting down, social media tightening the leash on user posts, etc. The true victims of NSA overreach are the unwritten books, the discarded film productions, the deleted blog posts. How many words will not be spoken, now that the world is aware of this behemoth information gathering machine? How is the average U.S. citizen supposed to reconcile fundamental American notions of freedom of press and speech with this Orwellian climate of fear? The chilling effect is even more pronounced when erotic speech is at issue, which has lived in the shadow of government censorship since its inception.
What seems to be happening all too frequently lately is the call to the public to rally against censorship at the hands of a supposedly democratic government. We saw it on January 18, 2012 (Internet Freedom Day) during the mass blackout of websites across the Internet in protest of proposed U.S. laws expected to harm online freedom. Will American citizens speak out against NSA spying abuses, and demand real accountability? Stopwatching.Us is a nonpartisan public coalition comprised of dozens of public advocacy organizations, gathered together for the purpose of stopping the chilling effect on free speech occurring at the hands of the NSA. On October 26, the twelve year anniversary of the signing of the PATRIOT Act, the Rally Against Mass Surveillance will occur in Washington D.C. The Stopwatching.Us coalition having already issued a letter to Congress voicing its concerns, is using the rally to call on the federal government to hold the NSA accountable for its questionable surveillance operations and just as importantly, reform the laws that supposedly permit such operations. With over half a million signatures on its petition reflecting the same demands, I’m cautiously optimistic that the anti-censorship lightning might strike twice thanks to the lobbying efforts of Internet freedom advocates like the EFF, ACLU, Public Knowledge, CDT, and many others. That said, a federal agency like the NSA is a force to be reckoned with, but that permanent role as Goliath in a fight to preserve domestic privacy does not place them above the law.
Government operations regulating communication in the Digital Age will always require that delicate balance between privacy, security and freedom. The NSA’s current surveillance operations forego the other two pieces of the puzzle in the name of national security. Sacrificing privacy and freedom, regardless of the reason in doing so, inevitably leads to censorship. The threat of “terrorism” pales in comparison to the threat of a government that has abandoned fundamental principles of due process, privacy, and free expression. The government of the people must decide how much privacy we are willing to sacrifice. The world is watching as Americans decide whether we will remain the home of the brave, or become the government shelter of the weak.
Criminalizing Online Innovation: State Attorneys General Seek to Amend Section 230
Deceptively invoking the ‘save the children’ mantra yet again, State AG’s are reigniting the battle against online escort advertising websites, this time calling on Congress to amend one of the Internet’s few statutory guardians: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230, arguably the most important law to date in terms of protecting online speech and innovation, provides immunity to certain online service providers against liability for their users’ content or publications. If you’re getting a sense of déjà vu, it’s rightfully so. Going all the way back to 2009, State AG’s across the country have been waging the same war against online escort ads for years.
Directly on the heels of the Summer 2013 National Association of Attorneys’ General meeting, 47 State AG’s penned a letter to the Legislature, asking them to amend Section 230(e)(1) to include two simple words: “or State.” By amending this provision of the statute, all state criminal laws would be excepted from Section 230’s immunity, thus exposing service providers to a grand scope of potential legal liability never before seen throughout the history of the Internet. The proposed language would essentially afford State AG’s the latitude and discretion to prosecute online service providers for user-generated content that runs afoul of some state’s statute. Currently, criminal prosecution against online service providers in these circumstances is limited to federal level law enforcement, which tends to be a bit less reactionary when it comes to prosecuting online speech. One obvious reason for this is that federal prosecutors are appointed; not politically elected like local sheriffs. Citing to the alleged irony that the CDA was intended to protect children and is now used as a shield to foster child exploitation, the letter references recent headlines tying sex traffickers to web-based advertising platforms.
As with most policy debates involving the delicate balance between online freedom and safety, coming to a solution that will satisfy both sides is difficult, if not, nonexistent. Unfortunately for State AG’s, this particular issue simply doesn’t lend itself to compromise. The Internet was designed to be the foremost method in dissemination of free speech. Requiring online service providers to keep track of, comply with, and actively enforce every single state criminal law in the country against their users would effectively eliminate the same user-generated content sites that currently drive the virtual marketplace. Giving that kind of power to 50 State AG’s is a clear and present danger to free expression on the Internet.
The scope of a State AG’s jurisdiction is intentionally limited to state-specific issues. The Internet, by its very nature, has no jurisdictional boundaries. State AG’s should not have the authority to address state-specific Internet issues, because they do not exist. The notion of online service provider criminal liability brought on by state-level enforcement is fundamentally incongruent. If the theoretical arguments don’t convince you, then just look at the sheer logistics of the proposal: The likelihood of successful enforcement of over 50 criminal statutes without clogging up the judicial system is a near impossibility. Another aside warranting mention speaks directly to the incredulousness of the proposal in general. The fact that State AG’s consciously turned a blind eye to proven congressional intent and years of well-settled case law, and continued with this illogical request for legislative action, furthers the perception that shock-value is playing too big a part in this. Legal and tech news outlets have been abuzz about the letter since it went public. If this is the reaction resulting from a simple written request, one can only imagine the media exposure if this proposal actually gets some traction, and bills start getting introduced. Attorneys General are typically elected officials who are predictably working their way up the ladder of the state political machine. At the risk of sounding jaded, it is not beyond the willingness of some AG’s to parlay this cyberspace freedom battle into some attention-grabbing news headlines for themselves.
Further, who’s to say that imparting this power on State AG’s would even solve the problem at hand? History certainly tells us otherwise. All of the examples of sex trafficking reported in the letter involved Backpage.com, an online classifieds forum deemed by the AG’s to have intentionally constructed a business model around the sex trade. Notably absent from such allegations is the fact that Backpage.com did not become the premier venue for adult classifieds until Craigslist was forced to shut down similar services because of the threat of prosecution by a similar band of overzealous State AG’s. Like all good stories, there’s some kernel of truth behind the AG’s claims. Child exploitation via the Internet is a real issue and needs to be addressed by law enforcement. But the fact of the matter is that criminal activity is going to occur in the online world just as it does in the offline world. Permitting state-level criminal prosecutions may eliminate a particular online venue used in committing sex trafficking crimes, but it will not eradicate online sex trafficking crimes. If anything, it will force participants underground, making law enforcement efforts even more difficult. Backpage.com is not the only venue for escort advertising, and some foreign-based websites may be much less cooperative when it comes to subpoena responses, or assistance with missing children investigations. This misguided attempt to seize authority to prosecute U.S. escort advertising sites under state law only chills speech and innovation, not criminal activity. The online world is just like its brick and mortar counterpart – its marketplace operates under the principles of supply and demand. As long as there is a demand for sex trade participants, the marketplace will evolve to accommodate that. And innocent online service providers who are not complicit in any sexual exploitation issues will get swept up in the onslaught of criminal prosecution. Leaving a core issue of interstate commerce like the Internet in the hands of the federal agencies sounds like a reasonable, continued solution. If rampant child exploitation is, indeed, occurring on Backpage.com or elsewhere, there are plenty of federal statutes available to address the problem.
We’re routinely seeing the argument that Section 230 was intended to be a shield for online service providers, but these days, it’s more commonly being used as a sword instead. Common sense will tell you that almost any law can be viewed in such a manner – whether it’s the shield or the sword simply depends on where you sit. Section 230 is a legal cornerstone on which the Internet was developed and continues to thrive. Granting the State AG’s request to amend this statute to permit state level prosecution against online service providers would not only damage the virtual marketplace, but generate an unequivocal chilling effect on online speech. As legitimate a cause it may be, risking irreparable harm to innovation and the global economy is not the solution to abolishing the sex trade, or any other moral impairment that may be occurring online.
Florida Sheriff Continues ‘War on Porn’ and Sets Sights on Backpage
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is well known for his faith-based campaign against erotic entertainment. His morality police strike again, this time with a promise to go after the world’s second largest classified ad website, Backpage.com. The threats of prosecution come on the heels of a four day sting operation resulting in the arrest of almost 100 people, with charges ranging from offering to commit lewdness to aiding and abetting prostitution, deriving proceeds from prostitution, escape, traffic offenses, possession of illegal drugs, battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest. According to deputies, the people arrested responded to advertisements posted by undercover detectives posing as prostitutes or were prostitutes who posted ads and came to the detectives’ location to offer services. Judd subsequently held a press conference stating that he now has permission from the State Attorney’s Office to launch a full criminal investigation into Backpage and its operators for facilitating organized prostitution and human trafficking, and plans to begin doing so.
Notably, this is the same sheriff who declared a so-called war on porn just a few short years ago. Having publicly vowed to eliminate all “smut” and “perverts” from his jurisdiction, by any means necessary, Judd has certainly kept working towards his goal of eradicating the “smut peddlers” who have the audacity to allow erotic speech to reach the residents of his county. Judd’s unique brand of Florida justice cuts off speech he disfavors at its source through threats, intimidation, and actual criminal prosecution against purveyors of such speech, with his most recent victims including website operators publishing interracial sex acts, and a convenience store operator selling girly videos. And nothing if not consistent, Sheriff Judd repeatedly justifies these tactics under the guise of enforcement of state obscenity laws, while disregarding bothersome legal constraints like jurisdictional boundaries, federal protection of website operations, and basic constitutional rights. During a previous obscenity case against a Netherlands-based website, he was quoted as saying that Polk County would have jurisdiction over anyone involved in running the website, even if they don't live in Polk County, as long as Polk County residents are able to view that website. Dutch porn sites beware!
While not relying on obscenity principles to justify the threats against the Backpage.com publication, Sheriff Judd may be playing a bit fast and loose with the scope of potential accomplice liability as applied to online advertising outlets. Merely providing web-based advertising space to escorts does not automatically equate to aiding and abetting prostitution or solicitation. That theory was briefly explored by state law enforcement authorities, but generally abandoned after a humiliating loss in federal court by the South Carolina Attorney General. So how plausible is it for a local sheriff in Central Florida to bring down a globally disseminated website with Texas-based operations and out-of-state owners? It would not be surprising for Sheriff Judd to attempt to pave new legal ground with such a prosecution, and grab some headlines in the process. His constituents appear to support these dubious law enforcement efforts, as Sheriff Judd is routinely reelected or goes unchallenged at the polls. This mentality, coupled with Florida’s 2013 statutory amendment increasing prostitution-related civil penalties from $500 to $5,000 per offense - literally 1000% - is reason enough for Backpage to take note of Judd’s threats. Despite the fact that escort activity is not inherently illegal, but recognized and licensed as a valid occupation in numerous jurisdictions, online escort advertising sites are routinely targeted and pressured to censor their ads. Many readers will recall the voluntary demise of Craigslist’s ‘erotic services’ section despite years of censorship battles in and out of the courtroom, and shortly thereafter, the guilty plea entered into by Escorts.com in a federal prosecution, resulting in unprecedented financial penalties imposed on a site of its kind. With ambiguous accomplice theories like conspiracy and aiding and abetting dictating potential legal liability of online service providers, it’s really no wonder why Sheriff Judd feels emboldened to take action against Backbage.com, as part of his enforcement of an ultra-conservative, erotophobic agenda.
Agendas aside, there are still laws in place expressly designed to protect online advertising venues from legal liability derived from user-generated materials published on the sites. Specifically, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act would allow an online service provider like Backpage to assert an immunity defense in response to any legal claims based on its third party advertisements. While Section 230 immunity is relatively well-settled in civil cases, it’s Judd’s threat of criminal prosecution that gives one pause for thought. Arguably, Section 230’s immunity would also extend to state criminal laws, and could present an insurmountable hurdle for Polk County law enforcement. However, this issue has not been conclusively determined in the courts.
Backpage would certainly also rely on free speech principles in defending against any criminal prosecution based on the content of its advertising. Because of the adult nature of escort ads, the line between prostitution-related offenses and free speech can often be blurred in these instances. But absent some sort of involvement by Backpage.com in the escorts’ day-to-day business activity, or clear knowledge that specific escorts were using its services to violate the law, the First Amendment may keep law enforcement at bay. Sheriff Judd counters that “Backpage.com charges for advertising and charges more for adult entertainment advertising. They are deriving profits from and facilitating prostitution." This facile argument ignores the difference between “adult entertainment” and “prostitution,” in the same way that Judd’s office has ignored the difference between illegal “obscenity” and legal “pornography” in the past. But these threats of criminal prosecution have the makings for a good ole’ fashion, small town constitutional street fight.
Previous battles involving online escort advertisers have undoubtedly proven that eliminating one particular venue of disfavored expression will not eliminate the perceived problem, but will only result in a change of venue. Backpage reported an unprecedented increase in users almost immediately after Craigslist shut down its adult services category, and eventually became the U.S.’s largest escort service advertiser by 2012. This notion was reiterated by Backpage’s counsel, Liz McDougall, in her response to Sheriff Judd’s threats. "Unless the Internet is wholly shut down the end result of [Judd’s] strategy will be that our children are advertised through offshore websites who are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement […]." With the circumstances at the mercy of one of the country’s most notorious moral crusaders, it’s difficult to envision Sheriff Judd doing anything but continuing down the path of draconian law enforcement, especially with such a newsworthy issue. Fortunately, the better of the legal arguments reside with Backpage, but the results of any politically-heated censorship battle are, as always, unpredictable.
Feminism or Fascism: Iceland’s Stunning Ban on Pornography May Be Spreading
Iceland recently made headlines with the latest project on its allegedly progressive agenda: a nation-wide ban on pornography. No stranger to proscribing activities related to commercializing sex, Iceland has already passed laws banning printed pornography, prostitution and stripping, and has done so all in the name of feminism. Rattling off the standard laundry list of the evils of porn, the Icelandic Parliament noticeably lingered on the “damaging effects” adult material has on the children who view it and the women who participate in it. Iceland’s Office of the Interior Minister defended the ban by stating that Icelandic citizens deserve to live and develop in a non-violent environment, therefore, the resulting law is “not anti-sex, but anti-violence.” What’s potentially more concerning is that this feminist backlash against commercial sexualization is gaining serious momentum throughout Europe, as evidenced by the European Union’s recent parliamentary vote on a blanket pornography ban. Taking a page from the Nordic view on feminism, the EU claims the ban will foster gender equality and combat sexual stereotypes by sanctioning individuals and businesses “promoting the sexualization of girls.” With Parliament disclosing very little about the potential ban, most Europeans are looking to the recent path blazed by Iceland for some guidance on what’s to come.* So what is the likelihood of Iceland being the first democratic state to successfully ban pornography? The answer to that question probably depends on your definition of success…
Given that Iceland is expected to implement similar blocking filters to those used in China and Iran, it stands to reason that Iceland would enjoy comparable success in restricting online content. However, the environmental and temporal differences between Iceland’s efforts and that of middle and far east authoritarian regimes, shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Countries like China and North Korea limited citizens’ access to online content, but such restrictions have been in effect practically since the Internet’s inception. Any armchair psychologist will tell you – and any parent of a toddler will confirm – it’s human nature to want what you can’t have. And if whatever you can’t have, is something that was in your possession but was taken from you, well that ups the ante even more. Like most citizens across the globe, Iceland’s people have had unfettered access to online adult material. To put it bluntly, it doesn’t matter how inherently progressive a country is, when you confiscate a piece of personal autonomy, there’s bound to be consequences.
Even if the Icelandic government seamlessly weathers whatever discontent that’s thrown its way, there’s still the matter of enforcement. Logistically speaking, Iceland will employ filters barring citizens from accessing flagged websites, and fire walls prohibiting Icelandic credit cards from purchasing adult content. But what about the tangible transport of digital pornography? Streaming, downloading and cloud access aren’t the only ways to retrieve digital content. What’s stopping someone located in another jurisdiction from entering Iceland’s borders with a pornographic DVD? With so many vehicles capable of transporting digital content, common sense says that it would be impossible to inspect each and every tablet, flash drive, laptop, and Smartphone that crosses Iceland’s borders. As long as there’s been contraband, people have been smuggling contraband – the digitization of such contraband has only made it that much easier.
The ability to control infiltration of the banned content leads directly to the next hurdle – the black market. We live in the Internet Age; every technological restriction is met with a response circumventing that restriction. Whether it’s a scrubbing tool used to mask IP address identification or software that scrambles collected geo-location location, there are countless techniques enabling the average Internet user to evade government-imposed limitations.
Without getting too high up on the First Amendment soap-box, this type of regulation tends to invoke the constitutional scholar in all of us. If Iceland wants to completely ban pornography, exactly what kind of material is considered “pornography”? Without careful and meticulous drafting, any such law will inevitably encompass content as innocuous as the mere display of genitals. Some reports say that the ban would only include “violent or degrading content.” As admirable as that is, we’re still left with the subjectivity surrounding the definitions of “violent” or “degrading.” Another variable to throw into the mix in determining what would constitute pornography is the intended purpose of the material in question. Specifically, was the content created for private consumption or commercial use? If Iceland’s chief concern is to prevent the commercialized sexualization of women and children, logically, only material disseminated commercially would violate the ban and any application of the law beyond that specific scope would be a flagrant infringement on privacy rights. Given the widespread creation and sharing of private erotica, a substantial amount of pornographic material would presumably be unaffected by the legislation.
In a very short time, Iceland will undoubtedly find itself at the age-old prohibition impasse, asking which holds more clout: a government imposed ban or the tenacity of those looking to circumvent that ban? As shown with most government-sanctioned goods or services, a black market develops; those participating eventually monopolize the marketplace; a consistent profit is generated; and ultimately standard supply and demand principles are used to exploit and perpetuate a marketplace devoid of legislative supervision. Government-imposed prohibitions might change behavior, but a behavioral change does not prove that the problem was solved; only that it has been forced underground. On that note, one must question whether the “problem” existed in the first place. One person’s degrading porn, is another’s…you know the rest. Ultimately, Iceland is unlikely to become a porn free zone irrespective of the pending legislation. If history has taught us anything, it’s if there’s a will, there’s a way.
*As this post went to press, the EU Parliament voted against the anti-porn proposal due to censorship concerns: “Language that would ban online pornography has been dropped from a report approved by the European Parliament.”
2012 in Review: Internet Censorship & the Acronyms We Love to Hate
With the new year upon us, two things become painfully apparent in concluding 2012 sans post-apocalyptic bedlam: 1) the Mayans seem to have preferred tequila breaks over finishing their calendaring duties, and 2) there are no more excuses justifying willful blindness to any of the damage done during the last twelve months. No, we’re not talking about the 10 lbs. you packed on since Thanksgiving, but more along the lines of extremist legislative proposals by lawmakers across the globe, particularly in the area of Internet regulation.
Recently, the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (“ITU”) culminated its World Conference on International Telecommunications (“WCIT”) in Dubai. The WCIT, comprised of almost 200 nations, was called for sole purpose of ratifying the ITU’s Telecommunications Regulations, which were drafted in 1988 to address interconnection between international telephone/telegraph networks. This year’s update, however, went off the rails a bit when some world leaders viewed the conference as an opportunity to gain government control over Internet operations. Countries like China, Russia and Middle Eastern nations lobbied for proposals that would allow member countries to regulate a broad range of Internet governance options that are currently under the authority of international third party NGO’s. One proposal went so far as to call for all signatory governments to have “equal rights to manage the Internet,” ranging from technical operations to actual content review. The U.S., along with Canada and the U.K., argued that greater government involvement in overseeing the Web would inevitably act as a gateway for countries already censoring the Internet within their respective borders to justify even more restrictions and invasive monitoring. Standing firm against the WCIT’s potential chilling effect on the world’s largest communication medium, the U.S. and its backers staged a walkout during the final vote on the WCIT’s revised Internet treaty.
Almost 90 countries signed the newly ratified regulation which, among other things, gives participants the unilateral and unrestrained ability to access private telecommunications services and block allegedly harmful commercial communication transmissions. Those countries that refused to sign the revised treaty are under no obligation to abide by it, and will only be bound by the language of the original 1988 agreement. As you can see, the situation still fosters a global epidemic of confusion, as about half the countries involved in the summit are now playing by an entirely new set of self-serving regulations with a colossal potential for abuse.
Whether or not we have a digital Cold War ahead of us remains to be seen. That said, before we start congratulating each other on the staunch free speech principles of our esteemed U.S. ambassadors in Dubai, we might want to make sure those ideologies still hold true in our own backyards. The U.S.’s rejection of the ITU telecom proposal was a critical step in the right direction. However, that effort doesn’t negate, or even lessen, the blow felt from similar regulations proposed by U.S. lawmakers just a few short months ago.
Under the guises of such noble causes as consumer protection, reducing unemployment and even battling terrorism, the U.S. government allowed censorship to rear its ugly head in 2012 with the likes of SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, and ACTA. SOPA, the bill thought to have had the most momentum out of the lot, would have given the U.S. government almost total control in blocking access to foreign websites – sans due process – exhibiting the slightest hint of infringing activity. Fortunately, the public fought back with a world-wide Internet blackout campaign, wherein hundreds of service providers – ranging from Google to Wikipedia – went dark or posted “CENSORED” messages on their sites. After January’s historic public backlash, SOPA (and its sister bill, PIPA) were removed from the House and Senate calendars indefinitely, but hopefully for good. This prior attempt at overzealous domestic regulation doesn’t quite resolve with the U.S.’s current position as the WCIT’s problem child. Such contradictory actions beg the question: How is the U.S. government any different from the countries it chastised at the WCIT? And even more so: How can we as Americans look at Chinese officials with disgust or Russian citizens with pity, when the U.S. Legislature ambushed its people with similar Draconian directives on domestic soil?
So often we hear the war-cry of grass roots movements, reminding us that all citizens have a voice; activism starts at home. The unfortunate reality is that although it’s true that activism starts at home, so does sanctimonious complacency. Given the series of disturbing events in the U.S. over the last few months, we’re seeing the relatively ‘kumbaya’ American disposition that often appears in the wake of national tragedies and natural disasters. As important as solidarity is in times of tribulation, it’s easy to forget that the legislative machine doesn’t stop rolling. If anything, such devastating events act as the shiny objects diverting citizens from yesterday’s cause. In today’s over-stimulated Information Age, the inadvertent label of ‘old news’ would be the kiss of death for any anti-censorship movement. If the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ adage has proven true with anything, it’s with the American people and the activity of their lawmakers. Legislative Internet censorship is a very real concept; a concept, that if dismissed by citizens, will undoubtedly find itself buried within the folds of yet another massive bill aimed at pulling on heart strings – whether in the form of protecting children, or giving hope to the unemployed via economically-friendly rhetoric.
Earlier this year anti-censorship activists rallied in an exhibition of civil unrest, the likes of which never seen by the so called “Internet Generation.” One would think that with the U.S. drawing a line in the sand on a global scale, additional censorship regulations disguised by muddying acronyms in the coming year would be highly unlikely. One would think… That said, the WCIT is just one battle in the constant war between government regulation and the free exchange of ideas. The U.S. has taken a significant global position on Internet freedom, but before our free speech piety gets the best of us, let’s make sure our government maintains that position in leading its own people first.
Canada’s Copyright Modernization Act: A Law With Global Impacts
Canada is home to many adult website operators, and a large consumer market. While developments in U.S. copyright law have been at the forefront of late, recent dramatic changes in Canadian copyright law are also of significant importance and may provide a blueprint for future modifications in U.S. law.
This past summer, in the country’s fourth attempt to amend its copyright laws since 2005, lawmakers finalized the new Canadian legislation, which substantially alters global copyright enforcement procedures – particularly in the online realm. In a blatant effort to rid the country of the reputation that garnered its placement on piracy watch lists across the globe, Canada has now done a complete one-eighty with its cutting-edge Copyright Modernization Act. Specifically drafted to parallel WIPO protocol, the Act pledges to assist Canada in becoming a major player in the global marketplace’s digital economy by striking the perfect balance between the rights of copyright holders and the public. Or so they say…
Admirably, the Act broadly expands the Canadian legal concept of “Fair Dealing.” Fair Dealing – comparable to America’s “fair use” – allows certain non-rights holders to use copyrighted material under specific circumstances, as long as the use doesn’t threaten the interest of the copyright holder. Previous copyright law limited Fair Dealing to: 1) research; 2) private study; 3) news reporting; 4) criticism; and 5) review. In a nod to free speech, the new Act extends the Fair Dealing umbrella to educational purposes, parody and satire. The hitch? To fall within Fair Dealing application, the nature of the use must be entirely non-commercial.
With the serious limitations resulting from the non-commercial requirement for Fair Dealing, Canadian lawmakers recognized the need to appease the country’s technology-based businesses that often rely on incidental use of copyrighted materials. While many companies involved in the tech industry are copyright owners, a complex web of quid pro quo licensing, sublicensing, and assignment drives the evolution of technological advancement in online entertainment. Accordingly, in the name of fostering innovation, the Act clarifies that automatic, technical and incidental reproductions are not a copyright violation. This means that many businesses which rely on copyrighted works as a supplement to a process, are most likely no longer impeded by the need to obtain express permission for a minuscule use of a copyrighted work during research and development. Software companies, specifically, will now be permitted to freely engage in research involving encryption, security testing and reverse engineering without fear of ramifications that may arise from incidental use of copyrighted works. Another business feeling a weight lifted off its shoulders is the fledgling broadcasting industry. In the past, broadcasters in Canada – like most countries – had to pay copyright holders for any temporary copies made of music that would be played on the air in addition to payment for actually broadcasting the music. Because of their temporary nature, broadcasters no longer have to pay for the creation and use of such copies as long as they are retained for less than thirty days.
Although the Act touts equality for all those involved in the digital marketplace, it significantly shifts the legal power dynamic in favor of copyright owners. Copyright holders not only have more intimidating remedies in pursuing infringers, they too, get to experience an expansion of their rights as a whole. The Act promises the utmost enforcement of: 1) Moral Rights; 2) Distribution Rights; and 3) Making-Available Rights. The traditionally European concept of Moral Rights allows the copyright holder to protect the “integrity” of the work for up to fifty years after publication, and was incorporated into the Act as a parallel to WIPO’s international notions. Distribution Rights will allow owners to control the first sale of copies, and hopefully curb preemptive leaks and distribution of pirated works. Finally, in taking a stance against peer-to-peer file sharing sites, the Act introduces Making-Available Rights that allow the author to control how their work may be accessed in cyberspace. Granted, some of these rights aren’t exactly new to the copyright game, but Canada is one of the first jurisdictions to put it all in one comprehensive piece of legislation.
Then there’s the latest and greatest “notice and notice” regime; a process that will undoubtedly impact online service providers for years to come. In the past, copyright owners had the right to seek a court order demanding that access to online infringing material be blocked. However, under the Act’s “notice and notice” regime, the onus to protect one’s copyright is no longer on the rights holder – it’s on the notified service provider. ISPs are now obligated to proactively discourage any use of a website or online service that could be considered infringing, by acting as a liaison between copyright owners and ISP’s customers. Service providers are required to forward any notice they receive from a copyright owner to their customer, if the rights holder alleges the customer is engaging in infringing activities. Not only are ISPs required to retain detailed records of such notifications, they are even subject to penalties for noncompliance as an “enabler” of infringement. With the not-so-affectionately dubbed ‘enabler provision,’ Canada is one of the few jurisdictions in the world to specifically provide a civil remedy for copyright owners against online intermediaries who “willfully and knowingly enable” copyright infringement. The ‘enabler provision’ is intended to supplement the already expanded rights of copyright owners discussed above. Claiming that many sites veil their piracy by claiming they are simply a platform for user-generated content, lawmakers maintain that legitimate ISPs have nothing to fear as they are exempt from ‘enabler’ liability if their activities are restricted to that of a true intermediary (e.g. – caching and hosting).
If you’re wondering why some of this sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it should… Remember SOPA? The legislation, once dubbed “the killer of the Internet,” was abandoned last spring after millions of Americans cried foul in an unprecedented rallying against a web-regulating law. Apparently Canadians didn’t feel quite the same way… Despite the legislature’s supposed intention of confining the law’s application to piracy-driven websites, the Act’s ‘enabler’ liability could unintentionally encompass legitimate websites or online services like forums, dating sites, classified advertising sites, or indexing sites. Arguably, the same broad language is what ultimately killed SOPA. Cyberspace has evolved almost completely to a Web 2.0 world, chock full of user-generated content as far as the eye can see. Unfortunately for those UGC sites (e.g. – YouTube, social media, etc.), the very core of their business models can be alleged to “enable” copyright infringement, when their services are misused by infringers. This obviously has a grave impact on Canadian-based websites, considering the non-commercial limitation on the country’s Fair Dealing rights. But as we’ve seen with U.S. copyright laws, the Canadian equivalent may potentially apply to all websites available in Canada, regardless of their jurisdiction of origin. Therefore, website operators throughout the world should educate themselves regarding the new obligations and rights provided by this landmark Canadian legislation.
The evolution of the Internet continues to confront legal restrictions imposed by numerous countries, passed in an attempt to balance technological advancement with protection of artistic expression. The substantial developments in Canadian copyright law signals big changes on the horizon, as each nation grabbles with these vexing legal issues. While online communication can only be effectively regulated by a global authority that does not yet exist, the rights of webmasters and copyright holders will be significantly impacted by technology regulation such as Canada’s Copyright Modernization Act.
Note: On November 7, 2012, most of the Canadian Copyright Modernization Act went into effect, upon publication of a government proclamation . Notably absent from the order were the provisions addressing the controversial “notice and notice” regime. Although the Canadian government has yet to delve into much detail regarding the exclusion, rumors of “fierce behind-the-scenes ” over the logistical details of the regime has made it clear that further policy development is needed before that controversial new system can take effect.
Lawrence G. Walters heads up Walters Law Group, www.FirstAmendment.com; a law firm focusing on First Amendment, Internet and Intellectual Property Law. Mr. Walters represents clients located throughout the United States, Europe, and Canada, on federal and international law issues. Nothing in this post is intended as legal advice, but is provided solely as general legal information.
Caged Pussy Riot: Protecting the Peace or Putin’s Political Revenge?
Between YouTube videos sparking Middle Eastern riots and the Westboro Baptist Church continuing its ministry one hateful protest at a time, recent headlines illustrate the unique place that Free Speech rights occupy in American society and jurisprudence. While these particular examples of expression are obviously disturbing to many, it is just such offensive speech that is most important to defend. By protecting the most egregious and distasteful speech, we ensure that all other expression remains comfortably within the fold of First Amendment protection. However, this mantra of perpetual tolerance for the unpopular voice – no matter how difficult it may be – is a uniquely American axiom. Especially true in this world of tech-based immediate gratification, we don’t think twice about the instantly accessible 140 character religious soapbox thanks to Twitter, or Facebook’s uncanny ability to spawn a political rant with one too many four-letter words at your fingertips. Free speech is something that Americans actually dub as a right. The unfortunate reality is that freedom of expression is often a luxury in other parts of the globe.
A Moscow court sentenced three members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk rock band, to “two years depravation of liberty in a penal colony” for charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The sentence stems from an unauthorized performance of the group’s song “Virgin Mary, Get Putin Out” during a church service at a Moscow cathedral. The song addresses the lack of division between church and state and criticizes the presidential administration’s alleged symbiotic relationship with Russia’s largest religious sect, the Orthodox Church. Citing to Head Patriarch Kirill’s public support for Putin in Russia’s presidential election as a prime example of the incestuous theopolitical relationship, Pussy Riot claims that their protest art simply speaks against Kirill and Putin’s conservative tendencies and the well-publicized close ties between the two. Although having fled Russia in fear of further persecution, the remaining members of Pussy Riot continue disseminating the band’s message. Presumably responding to the band’s continued rebellion, Russian officials then called Pussy Riot’s lawyers before the Moscow Police Investigation Committee for alleged participation in a protest rally on the eve of Putin’s May inauguration. The interrogation summons came just days after a video surfaced of the estranged Pussy Riot members thanking their supporters and subsequently burning a photo of President Putin.
The band’s sentence was met with condemnation across the board. Dubbing them “prisoners of conscience,” Amnesty International stated that the band’s detention is a result of simple expression of personal beliefs. Both, the EU Foreign Affairs Office and the U.S. State Department, denounced the court’s decision by questioning the alleged politically-motivated prosecutions and the resulting “disproportionate” sentences. Protests in support of the band have been held around the globe, including a St. Petersburg music festival which commenced this past Monday despite numerous threats from city officials urging to cancel the event. Dozens of musicians and celebrities have joined the ranks of supporters, and are calling on their fans to recognize the harm Russian officials are doing to artistic expression. Madonna found herself targeted by government scrutiny after officials promised to closely monitor her concert for “homosexual propaganda,” as such “Western values” are now criminalized as “promoting homosexuality to minors.”
As some music geeks might already realize, Pussy Riot’s politically-charged, expletive-laden lyrics are reminiscent of the U.S.’s very own Riot Grrrl Movement. In the early-90’s, underground female empowerment bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy dominated the American punk rock scene with a similar ‘bull in a china shop” approach to modern feminist discourse. Notoriously anti-government and anti-sexism, the Riot Grrrl Movement condemned traditional social themes from capitalistic greed to conventional gender roles. The Riot Grrrl bands performed with the common goal of calling for action against the status quo – such actions were often unpopular and even offensive. Admittedly, Pussy Riot should not be exempt from reprimand simply because their illegal performances are accompanied by political expression. That said, common sense alone warrants questioning the proportionality of what amounts to a zoning violation warranting two years of incarceration in a Russian prison. Political activism and a healthy dose of social dissonance are crucial to the civic evolution of any society regardless of its placement on the globe. Arguably, this suggests the only thing separating Pussy Riot and Riot Grrrl bands is the First Amendment.
Prosecutors claimed that the cathedral performance was intended to directly insult the Russian Orthodox Church. Congregants found offense in that insult, and having to witness such overwhelming offensiveness resulted in “grievous harm” to them as Orthodox Christians – this amounted to a hate crime. There you have it: three women dancing and shouting for under 60 seconds in a religious venue may cause witnesses to be so profoundly offended, that such actions couldn’t have any other purpose but to convey hate speech. In all actuality, the performance may have been vulgar and even disarmingly insulting. But to foster the delicate balance between unpopular speech and the unwilling listener, only communication likely to result in imminent violence may qualify as true hate speech. The Russian court found that the band’s actions “crudely undermined social order.” Even so, any such activities – no matter how crude – are still a substantial leap to hate crime. Preservation of “social order” does not permit the U.S. government to censor speech. Admittedly, the average American would prefer to keep their Sunday church service a low-key affair. However, should a group of rocker chicks donning combat boots and luchador masks arrive, screaming their discontent with President Obama and organized religion, the likelihood of the disruption amounting to hate speech is slim to none…at least under U.S. law.
The E.U.’s Organization for Security and Cooperation recently recognized a growing trend in Eastern Europe where government, lobbyist groups and even court systems are “taking a more restrictive stance on content deemed offensive, morally questionable or dangerous for children.” Fittingly, Putin’s infamous intolerance for dissent has recently hit a new high. In the three short months since resuming the presidency, Putin has “directed at least 19 political cases to the Russian courts” and allowed parliament to enact laws restricting public protest and reinstating criminal libel. The fines for protest-related offenses were increased exponentially and now range from $9,000-30,000, depending on one’s level of involvement. The draconian legislation even likens citizens engaging in political activities with foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations to “agents of foreign interest” (read: spies). Clearly meant to encumber activist groups, the laws arrived hot on the heels of Putin’s latest erosion of civil rights; Bill 89417-6, Russia’s Internet censorship legislation. The Bill allows Russian domains to be blacklisted without judicial oversight if officials find the site’s material “extremist in nature” or “harmful to minors.” Should the website fail to remove the offending material within 24 hours of notification, the service provider must block the entire site. Despite its gravity and global implications, the Bill’s week long sprint through Parliament ensured the inevitable and it will become law on November 1. Although publicized as a safety directive, there’s little doubt that the Bill will be used as yet another instrument of oppression to silence Putin’s opposition.
Protecting offensive speech – whether pertaining to religion, politics, sex, etc. – is crucial to ensure that all speech remains protected. Intimidation tactics used to silence the opposition is nothing short of sheer cowardice. When those tactics are employed by government officials to selectively prosecute political opponents and dissenting voices such actions are shockingly short sighted as those in positions of political power should unquestionably recognize the importance of protecting the marketplace of ideas. As is often said, the cure for bad speech is simply more speech, not censorship. As we may see in the coming months, decisions like the one at hand create a very predictable chilling effect. When witnessing such injustice at the hands of all three political branches, it’s only a matter of time until the Russian citizenry allows fear of government retaliation to dictate expression of their opinions, thus effectively eliminating public discourse of certain topics. Say what you will about Pussy Riot’s message, government restraint on that message is purely a pretext for censorship. Taking into account Putin’s history and recent Russian legislation, it’s virtually certain that Pussy Riot won’t be seeing a presidential pardon in their future. But with the appeal slated for October 1, and both sides showing no sign of waning, the Pussy Riot saga is far from over and will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on Russia. Given the international attention this incident has received, and the resulting uniform condemnation of blatant censorship, we can hope that one defining American value will begin to take hold internationally – Freedom of Speech.