Made in Missouri: Senator Hawley's Quest to Revive Obscenity Prosecutions

Made in Missouri: Senator Hawley's Quest to Revive Obscenity Prosecutions

ST. LOUIS — Senator Josh Hawley's home state of Missouri, and particularly its evangelical churches, has become Ground Zero for the ongoing campaign against the entire adult entertainment industry.

The current campaign is spearheaded by Exodus Cry — an offshoot of controversial St. Louis-area ministry International House of Prayer (IHoP) — which has claimed credit for both Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times article against Pornhub, and also for its consequences: major credit card companies freezing payment processing for the tube site, and bill proposals introduced in the U.S. Congress to address Kristof’s suggestions.

One of those bills points back to the “Show-Me” state. On December 9, five days after Kristof’s editorial that sensationalized victim accounts in a call for state censorship, Hawley introduced a bill to “enable victims of revenge porn, trafficking and sexual coercion” to sue websites posting images and videos without their consent.

Hawley’s press release announcing the bill proposal told a different story. He referred to Pornhub’s core business as “spreading depraved content,” by which he deliberately erased the line between illegal videos and adult entertainment material produced by consenting adults.

Hawley’s bill was co-sponsored by Senators Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), but the Missouri Senator was the prime mover, having announced his intention to introduce this bill via a tweet earlier that week.

“Sites like Pornhub routinely escape responsibility for facilitating abuse, trafficking and exploitation, making millions for themselves in the process,” Hawley’s press release stated. “Meanwhile, the victims of this abuse have little recourse against these powerful companies, who thrive on spreading depraved content. Serious criminal penalties are needed to crack down on these tech executives who think they are above the law.”

The bill’s co-sponsor, Iowa's Joni Ernst stated, without providing any evidence, that “in recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in human trafficking through pornography.”

Another Republican co-sponsor, Senator Tillis added his opinion that “pornographic websites routinely post videos of women who are the victims of abuse or exploitation, and it is past time these companies are held accountable for posting this disgusting content.”

Technology and Religion

Hawley and his colleagues’ repetition of the mantra that illegal videos are part of the core business of “pornographic websites,” and that there’s no distinction between consensual pornography and illegal content, is consistent with the claims by religiously motivated War on Porn groups such as NCOSE (formerly Morality in Media), Exodus Cry and Fight the New Drug.

Which is not surprising because Josh Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri, has built his career on two issues that put him on a collision course with First Amendment protections for online sexual expression: Technology and Religion.

Hawley’s ultimate goal concerning online porn is simple: to restore the obscenity definitions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, long struck down as unconstitutional by the courts, in order to begin the prosecution of all producers of erotic content.

Obscene Content Everywhere

In a June 4 Twitter thread concerning Section 230 and the 1996 CDA, Hawley protested that the “courts rewrote the statute over the years, eliminating the obscenity requirements, eliminating distributor liability (for content known to be illegal) and expanding immunity.”

Far from limiting liability, the original CDA (before Section 230 was added to it), “imposed liability on tech platforms for obscene content directed at children,” Hawley argued in the same thread.

The censorship provisions of the CDA, deemed unconstitutional by several judges, considered the overwhelming majority of online pornography as “obscene content directed at children,” since they were on the open internet.

The successful First Amendment challenges, according to Hawley, were an unwelcome judicial intervention in the legislative process.

“This is, to put it mildly, not what Congress wrote,” he emphasized. “Which is yet another reason why [Section 230] reform is needed.”

A Headline-Grabbing Local Politician

Hawley has been pondering how to obliterate Section 230 for years, starting with his rapid rise in the world of Missouri politics. He served a short tenure as attorney general of Missouri starting in 2016, which by all accounts showed him more interested in projecting himself nationally through headline-grabbing investigations than in any local issues.

As Missouri AG, he was one of the first local prosecutors to launch anti-trust investigations into Google and Facebook’s business practices. Linking his name on headlines with these Big Tech international brands instantly elevated his stature. He also became known as one of the most vocal proponents for upholding so-called “religious freedoms,” a euphemism for eroding any legislation that sought to prevent religious people from using their beliefs as an excuse to discriminate or to violate the civil rights of others.

Tech and religion are the two keys to Hawley’s character, which have been recently joined by a sycophantic, theatrical allegiance to Donald Trump.

A comprehensive survey of his obsession with becoming the main GOP regulator of online communications and businesses is “Silicon Valley Should Take Josh Hawley’s Big War on Big Tech Seriously,” an article written by Emily Stewart for Vox’s Recode vertical in October 2019.

Stewart correctly pointed out that Hawley represents a new generation of tech-savvy conservatives.

“The youngest member of the United States Senate at age 39,” Stewart wrote, “Hawley was elected in November 2018. He’s had a busy year: The ambitious former Missouri attorney general has introduced and cosponsored multiple pieces of legislation on issues such as data tracking, children’s online privacy, data monetization, alleged social media bias and tech addiction. He’s also taken a notably aggressive tack when questioning tech executives in congressional hearings. His scrutiny of Silicon Valley comes at a time when reining in Big Tech is becoming increasingly popular politically — meaning that talking about it is a way to get attention in the press.”

Hawley, Stewart added, “has built his career with tech in the crosshairs and is obviously well-versed in the arena.”

“I think [tech] is for many, many people a true kitchen-table issue, especially as it relates to their children,” Hawley told her.

But the Recode article also presented evidence of Hawley as a political showman using his War on Big Tech as an attention grab. Chris Calabrese, vice president of policy at the Center for Data & Technology “noted that while Hawley launched investigations as attorney general, he never brought a case against Facebook or Google.”

“He’s been really aggressive in his public messaging about the companies, so it can be hard to separate that from the actual proposals,” Calabrese told Recode. He was referring to an op-ed Hawley wrote in May 2019 for USA Today where he called Facebook an “addictive digital drug that hurts its users.”

Hawley “suggested we would be better off if the platform simply disappeared,” Stewart wrote.

Dead Serious

Hawley did try to bring some of his ideas about how to control internet speech into fruition with the June 2019 Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act (ESICA), an early offering in the frenzy of “let’s reform or repeal Section 230” proposals that crowded the congressional calendar throughout 2020.

In the words of Recode, Hawley’s bill “would require companies to prove to the FTC every two years that they aren’t politically biased in order to receive Section 230 protections. Hawley’s legislation, which has zero cosponsors, has gone nowhere in Congress. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the architects of Section 230, slammed the bill as one that seeks to ‘deputize the federal government as the Speech Police in flagrant violation of the First Amendment’.”

Far from backing down when accused of trying to set up an ideological state police online, Hawley told Recode he was “dead-serious about it.”

A Post-Liberal vs. the Epicureans

And here’s where religion comes into the Josh Hawley rise-to-power equation. Besides the Recode piece, the other deep dive into Hawley’s ideology is a July 2019 article in the New Republic titled “Is Josh Hawley For Real?” by Alexander Zaitchik.

Zaitchik claims Hawley has “become the face of the post-liberal movement — and positioned himself as the philosophical heir to Trump.”

The New Republic cites Think Progress’ Ian Millhiser characterization of Hawley as “the one man most likely to turn the U.S. into a theocracy,” in a column that makes a direct comparison between the Missouri senator and the villains in the dystopian series (and novel) “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

The article highlights how Hawley’s pseudo-populist script against Big Tech can easily be applied to the current campaign against Pornhub.

“My great worry,” he told the Washington Post, “is an economy that works for a small group of billionaires and then everybody else gets their information taken from them and monetized.” (“Monetization” being what Nicholas Kristof and Exodus Cry allege against Pornhub to argue for their complicity in the illegal acts depicted in videos uploaded by third parties.)

The 'Cosmopolitan' Dogwhistle

But Hawley peppers his standard anti-tech gospel with winks at his religious constituency, who see him as their true righteous representative in the largely heathen halls of power. Hawley raised some eyebrows in June 2019 when he railed against the “cosmopolitan” consensus, speaking to a crowd of conservative nationalists in D.C.. Harangues against the supposed evils of “cosmopolitanism” is a common evangelical preaching point (the Harlot of Babylon, etc.), but it also happens to be a known anti-Semitic dogwhistle.

Hawley describes himself as a devout evangelical Presbyterian. The New Republic article mentions his odd first speech in the senate, where he referred to an “epidemic of loneliness and despair” in “a society increasingly defined not by the genuine and personal love of family and church, but by the cold and judgmental world of social media.”

Zaitchik argues that Hawley embodies an emergent conservative tendency known as “post-liberalism,” which he describes as “a stewing amalgam of long-marginalized ideas on the right that have found new life […] in the aftermath of the 2016 election.”

“For the post-liberals, Big Tech is basically Armageddon,” Zaitchik notes.

“Stated simply, the post-liberals—represented foremost by the right-wing Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony, but also by more mainstream writers like The New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari — reject universal reason as a basis for laws and government. They mourn the institutions, values and hierarchies that secular rationalism has laid to waste in the name of progress. They see the global rise of right-wing populism as evidence of a profound and widespread if inchoate dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment legacy of pluralism, the primacy of individual rights and the hard separation of Church and State.”

An Attack on Modernity

Hawley is fond of referring to liberalism as “Epicurean,” faulting the modern world for not worshiping God and instead embracing “the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self.”

This is a very bad thing for Hawley, who seems to have taken history of philosophy courses (he studied history at Stanford) where he obviously chose his side in antiquity’s battle between “Stoicism” (later Christianized in forms of monasticism) and “Epicureanism” (a complex philosophy which Hawley seems to mainly reduce to “liking fun things”).

The post-liberal lens, Zaitchik continues, “reveals Hawley’s internet politics in their full dimension. Each of his proposals — a ban on the selling of digital indulgences to children playing Candy Crush, federal certification regimes to oversee social media content policies — are attempts to assert control over a revolutionary technology that is the apotheosis of modern placelessness, anomie, secularism and vulgarity.”

“His attacks on higher education, social media and technology are really out of left field and not priorities for voters,” Lauren Gepford, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, who has witnessed Hawley’s unstoppable rise commented. “It’s almost like he’s attacking modernity itself.”

The Family Reseach Council's Chosen One

But whatever he learned at Stanford, Hawley’s views on freedom of sexual expression are evangelically inspired and Missouri-bred. In 2017, as attorney general, Hawley blamed the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s for “human trafficking.”

“We have a human trafficking crisis in our state and in this city and in our country because people are willing to purchase women, young women, and treat them like commodities,” Hawley told a right-wing Kansas City evangelical group. “There is a market for it. Why is there? Because our culture has completely lost its way. The sexual revolution has led to exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined, never have imagined.”

Hawley has also made no secret of his consistent support for religious right-wing lobby Family Research Council (FRC) — and he has even recorded Facebook videos for the group, admonishing voters that, "Friends don't let friends vote for people supported by Planned Parenthood."

The FRC’s definition of pornography, which Hawley has echoed in his pronouncements is as follows:

“Family Research Council believes pornography is a violation of human dignity that perverts the beauty of human sexuality and exploits human beings as commodities. Unfortunately, pornography has moved from the margins of our culture into the mainstream, inflicting its poison on marriages, families and communities. Worst of all, it has stolen a time of innocence from our children. Because the internet lacks strong legal enforcement tools, it has become the largest platform to promulgate explicit sexual material to minors and facilitate human trafficking and prostitution. We call for the vigorous enforcement of all existing obscenity laws and will continue to work for stronger laws that protect against these forms of exploitation.”

Last October, Hawley himself entered into the Congressional record a letter by the FRC urging senators to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court Justice.

For the FRC, Hawley is not just any member of Congress. The religious lobby sees him as a sort of Chosen One. They’re also, of course, big donors to his cause.

In 2018, when Hawley was elevated to the Senate, the FRC Action PAC, the political action committee connected with Family Research Council Action, congratulated him “on his victorious election.”

“This was a priority race for FRC Action PAC,” the organization boasted. “In the state of Missouri, FRC Action launched multiple social media ads, hosted 24 pastor events, distributed over 50,000 voter guides, made 100,000 voter contacts, held eight FRC Action Values Bus stops across the state and co-hosted a campaign rally with Vice President Pence, all in an effort to actively supported Josh Hawley’s candidacy.”

"We are pleased to congratulate Senator-elect Josh Hawley on winning the race in Missouri for the United States Senate,” said FRC Action PAC President Tony Perkins. “We knew his unwavering commitment to protect conservative principles as well as his diligence in fighting big government, special interests and organized crime while serving as Missouri's attorney general would earn him the support of Missouri voters. We are confident that in the years to come he will continue to be an advocate for preserving the integrity of the Constitution and will keep up the fight for faith, family and freedom in the U.S. Senate.”

A Different Kind of First Amendment Warrior

Ultimately, whether Hawley’s attempt to revive the obscenity prosecutions recommended by the 1996 CDA are successful will depend on judges' interpretations of the First Amendement.

Hawley agrees. Except for him, the First Amendment means something completely different.

“These are the fights that I have been fighting and I’m going to go on fighting them for the people of my state,” he told a Family Research Council crowd when he was AG.

“The ‘separation of Church and State’ — that phrase of course doesn’t appear anywhere in the United States Constitution,” he declared. “But, what the First Amendment does say — there is a separation you bet — and the separation is that the government cannot tell churches how to run their church and they cannot tell them what to preach.”

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