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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Cybersense—Anti-Porn Effort May Have Wide Free Speech Impact

It’s easy to smirk about a place like Utah. It’s where religion dominates politics and where sex outside of marriage isn’t just frowned upon, it’s prosecuted.

But a newly appointed Utah official is getting ready to wipe that smile off your face, particularly if you’ve been leering at Internet porn.

A former local prosecutor named Paula Houston has been named the state’s first Obscenity and Pornography Complaints Ombudsman, a title that most people are shortening to Porn Czar. She’s the first state official in the nation whose job is devoted exclusively to stamping out smut, and state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says her top priority will be the Internet.

“If somebody in another state has a pornographic Web site and he’s trying to get my 15-year-old son hooked on it by sending it to him when he doesn’t ask for it, yeah, we’re going to prosecute the guy,” Shurtleff said.

Never mind that Web sites don’t work that way: You don’t “send” them to anyone. Shurtleff also complains that links to pornographic sites are sometimes returned by search engine queries for otherwise innocent words like “teen.” And he insists that Utah’s youth are “getting bombarded by pornography” while researching homework projects and conversing in chat rooms.

“There are pornographers who are pushing the limit, stepping over the line and then waving the First Amendment and saying, ‘You can’t touch me,'” he said. “But there are lines drawn by the U.S. Supreme Court, and we’re going to be there if you step over them to smack you back.”

Them’s fightin’ words, particularly when you consider what sort of material Utah residents might want to block. While the Supreme Court has rejected federal laws designed to censor the Net, it has ruled that local prosecutors can impose restrictions on obscene content. And the definition of obscenity was left up to local communities, meaning the smallest, most conservative town in the nation’s most conservative state gets to set its own rules.

That policy worked well enough when only the town’s residents had to live by those rules. But now that the Net exposes them to victoriassecret.com, banner ads for caffeinated soda and other such heresies, the high court’s obscenity standard gives them legal grounds to pursue the purveyors of such rubbish wherever they might be located.

One of Houston’s first tasks is to update the state’s obscenity statute and help local communities draw up their own. Then she’ll compile a database of sites that violate those laws in hopes of convincing prosecutors from other states or the federal government to help bring these newfound felons to justice. She might even work with filtering software vendors to develop a “911 button” that allows state residents to report sites they believe are obscene, Shurtleff said.

So will the Net’s pornographers scale back the skin until they conform to Utah’s new laws? Not likely. In fact, the state would be well served to keep a tight leash on Houston if they want to preserve its citizens’ right to crack down on local obscenity.

If Utah officials try prosecuting out-of-state Web publishers, the Supreme Court would have little choice but to update its obscenity standard for the Internet age. In drafting the old one, justices didn’t anticipate a forum in which a small conservative community could impose its standards nationwide. Now that such a forum exists, the courts have protected it by striking down laws that tried elevating someone’s idea of morality above the constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and association.

This explains why Shurtleff says that Houston will be spending most of her time helping state residents learn more about combating pornography on their own. She’ll tell them what’s out there and how they can block at least some of it by installing software filters on their home PCs. And if she’s smart, she’ll convince local officials to forget about the Net and focus their moral outrage on strip clubs and skin mags.

There’s no crime in appointing someone to help residents of a politically conservative state enforce their morality in their own homes. But when it comes to protecting the world at large from the moral diseases of online pornography, Utah will find that state government makes a pretty poor prophylactic.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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