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Even pornography under protection

Porn czar and panelists tackle thorny issues

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LOGAN — Pornography can be one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute because another federal law gets in the way sometimes — the U.S. Constitution.

Although many people may find pornography offensive or obscene, generally, there's not much they can do about it because it's protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, which allows freedom of speech.

It's a trade-off many people don't realize when they file complaints with the state's porn czar, Paula Houston. She said her complainants often come away frustrated because they realize their moral objections do not outweigh the Bill of Rights.

Stephen Clark, legal director for the Salt Lake chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it's a no-brainer to him — pornographers are protected from prosecution under the Bill of Rights. But he also acknowledged that others might not share his self-proclaimed "First Amendment absolutist" opinions.

Clark, Houston and the Rev. Barry Neese of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Logan spoke at a panel discussion at Utah State University's Media and Society speaker series Thursday.

The only instances in which pornography would not be permissible under the First Amendment would be if it could be scientifically and factually proven to cause harm or if it constituted an actual or imminent harm to others — a clear and present danger.

Studies fall on both sides of that question. On one hand, some argue that pornography can be linked to a sexual desensitization and rape trivialization that pose a clear and present danger. Others claim there are no such links, that the only provable point about pornography is that it promotes sexual stimulation.

Nonetheless, clear and present danger remains a subjective decision, Clark said.

"It's inevitably in the eye of the beholder," he said.

States have followed the Supreme Court's example, creating laws that attempt to regulate, censor or outlaw pornography. New Mexico tried to outlaw anything that could be construed as harmful to minors — but that law was deemed unconstitutional.

It's that lack of success that prompts Clark to argue Houston's position is unnecessary and potentially dangerous — a charge with which she, of course, does not agree.

"I walk through the law with (city attorneys)," Houston said. She's a specialist, a resource that prosecutors can call when faced with a case outside their expertise. Time and again, Houston has explained that she does not prosecute pornography — she merely serves as an educator for the public about what the public can and cannot do about pornography.

The three panelists acknowledged they don't have the answers to tough issues such as Internet child pornography, but they all noted that there's an element of self-protection if people want to avoid it — especially if parents want to shield their children from it.

"Parents need to quit letting the computer be a baby sitter," Houston said. "And the government has a responsibility to help protect them."

Neese believes individuals should be accountable to themselves.

"There's an individual responsibility in pornography (just as) there's a responsibility to turn off the television if it's offensive to you," Neese said. "We need to protect ourselves from ourselves."

E-mail: kswinyard@desnews.com