Last weekend I had the occasion to visit my friend Joe at his three-bedroom apartment located just south of Wilshire in West Los Angeles. As I walked up the steps and knocked on the door, ready for an evening of apple martinis and lemon drops, my phone rings. I reach to answer it and am greeted by the excited voice of our mutual friend Robert, who informs me that the trendy new Beverly Hills club we are on the list for will be filled with "Playmates, can you believe that?!!!???" After promising to hurry, I hang up the phone and am invited in.
"Have a seat!" Joe says. I comply and am suddenly bombarded with images of naked girls in all sorts of enticing poses. Playboy magazines are scattered all over the coffee table, the bedrooms, and the bathrooms. The desktop computer, where Joe's roommate Aaron has made his pet Playmate the wallpaper for the screen, is a virtual address book of "favorite" adult websites where the boys visit and chat with their favorite actresses. Hoping to escape the scantily clad images of these women, I turn on the television. No less than fifteen adult stations are listed on the preview guide. "Keep it on this one, it's my favorite," Joe smirks. Wow, I think to myself. In this era of digital technology, is there any escaping the wonderful world of adult entertainment????
According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, less than one percent of all on-line advertising is spent on pornography. Yet the growth of the adult entertainment industry has been astonishing. According to Forrester Research, Web porn sales will reach an estimated $366 million dollars by the end of 2001, almost a 300% increase from 1997. So how do anxious parents protect their young children from such degrading material?
In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which outlawed the transmission of indecent material to young children. This Act was later struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. Two years later, Congress tried again to sign into law the Child Online Protect Act, ("COPA") which established criminal penalties for information distributed to minors which was deemed "harmful." Again, the constitutionality of the law was challenged, and an injunction was issued against its enforcement.
The legal definition of "obscene" is one which is judged by a three-prong test: 1) whether the work, taken as a whole 2) appeals to the prurient interest of the average person applying contemporary community standards 3) and whether the work lacks any literary, artistic, social or political value. Where the controversy lies is in defining 'contemporary community standards." Across the nation, courts look to state statutes for this definition, and base their "obscenity test" accordingly. However, with the advent of the Internet and digital technology, defining exactly what "community standard" applies and where, is becoming increasingly difficult.
In an opinion delivered by Justices Douglas and Black nearly 45 years ago, they suggest that "the test of obscenity gives the censor free range over a vast domain. To allow the State to step in and punish mere speech or publication that the judge or the jury thinks has an undesirable impact on thoughts but that is not shown to be a part of unlawful action is drastically to curtail the First Amendment. (354 U.S. 476 ). That same line of thought resonates throughout society today. Under this test juries can suppress and punish whatever they like as long as it relates to sex.
So for now, the battle over obscenity continues. Sitting squarely on one side of the ring is Joe, his roommates, and millions of other porn subscribers, boxing gloves laced, Playboys in hand. They are ready to fight for their right to view what they believe to be artistically valuable websites over the Internet. And on the other side are hard core conservatives, concerned parents and politicians.
At stake: Literary freedom. Will we ever find a happy medium between protecting the young hearts and minds of the world and allowing freedom of speech to thrive? Who knows? It's about to get interesting. Let's sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.