That’s Obscene!

Or is it? Why censoring evil does more harm than good.

| September-October 2006

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    Image by Flickr user: dprevite / Creative Commons

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Just as good literature invites us to perceive the world subtly and empathetically, it is possible for novels or films or television shows to view the world crudely and insensitively, and to spin out self-aggrandizing fantasies that invite self-centeredness and cruelty. There is a lot of that stuff in our culture, and the explosive growth of pornography has created more. It is a huge problem. Will censorship make matters better?

The Bush administration seems to think so. Attorney General John Ashcroft attempted to reinvigorate obscenity prosecutions, and his successor, Alberto Gonzales, has continued that effort.

In January 2005, a federal judge threw out the Bush administration’s most prominent prosecution against obscenity in an opinion that cast doubt on the constitutionality of every obscenity prosecution in the country. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision last December, but it did not question the judge’s conclusion that the U.S. Supreme Court had undercut the foundations of obscenity law. The high court may soon have to confront, for the first time in decades, the question of whether it makes any sense to say that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment.

The case, United States v. Extreme Associates, is the first high-profile federal obscenity prosecution in years. The video on which the charges are based, Forced Entry, shows rape-murders in a way that is clearly intended to be arousing to the viewer. Forced Entry is as nasty a video as the Justice Department could find, and so is as likely as anything is to violate community standards of decency.

Extreme’s attorney, Louis Sirkin, is confident he can defend Forced Entry as being consistent with community standards. “Forced Entry is no worse than some of the slasher movies,” he says. “It has a story line. The bad guy is caught at the end. It portrays violence, but lots of movies portray violence. It’s not a movie that I would buy, but I wouldn’t buy Friday the 13th and those kinds of movies.” The difference is that Friday the 13th doesn’t show sexual penetration. But lots of hotels in the Western District of Pennsylvania show films with sexual penetration. Could it be that neither the violence nor the sex is obscene, but that a film is obscene if it puts them together?

Even with portrayals of sexual violence that make the violence appear attractive, matters are complicated. There may be valid moral reasons for such portrayals. One of the most vivid literary treatments of sexual cruelty is Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita, which is told from the point of view of the eloquent and witty pedophile Humbert Humbert. For half a century critics have debated whether Nabokov went too far in letting Humbert’s voice dominate the novel. Forced Entry isn’t Lolita, of course. Lolita is a literary classic, and Forced Entry—to put it gently—is not. And this matters, because under current Supreme Court standards, material can’t be obscene if it has substantial literary value.

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