California Bill Seeks to Redefine Obscenity

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – State Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, has revised a bill originally submitted in February that seeks to define obscenity in the state, with special regard to how cases are prosecuted in situations involving people who appear to be minors.

Senate Bill 478, resubmitted on April 20, continues to define obscene material according to the federal "Miller-test" standards, which includes matter that, taken as a whole and applying contemporary statewide standards, "appeals to the prurient interest," "depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way" and "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

The bill also specifies that sexual depictions of persons under 14 be made a misdemeanor or felony, revising Section 311.9 of the Penal Code’s provision that similar material depicting persons under 18 be deemed a misdemeanor.

In light of concerns over digital manipulation of photos, SB 478 also includes language about compositing, allowing for evidence to be brought forth to ascertain “that a person under 18 years of age was not completely generated by technology.”

Further, the bill eliminates the need for the prosecution or defense to provide expert testimony in obscenity cases. Expert testimony has been a major tool of defendants in recent obscenity cases, such as Ashcroft vs. The Free Speech Coalition, decided in 2002, which declared unconstitutional the ban on depictions of persons over 18 who “appeared to be” younger than 18.

Coincidentally, the revised bill was introduced the morning after the Free Speech Coalition’s “Wrap Party” for its annual lobbying drive to the Capitol.

The bill calls for higher penalties for the dissemination and sale of what is deemed to be obscene material than for the production of the same material, and, with regard to community standards, allows for the admission to court of appeals based on “customary limits of candor in the description or representation of nudity, sex or excretion.”