Anti-smut fight loses warrior


Utah: The state's first `porn czar,' once the target of jokes, is losing her job to budget cuts, but she gained some respect, and she feels she has made a difference.

March 11, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY -- Smut still lurks in the dark corners of this state, and filthy spam messages fill the Internet.

But Paula Houston won't be around to lead the cleanup crusade. The nation's first state-employed "pornography czar" will soon be out of work, a victim of budget cutbacks.

Her boss, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, shifted $75,000 from other accounts to cover her salary last year, but he couldn't do financial magic a second time.

An attempt in the final days of the state Legislature's session to rescue the position by taxing adult entertainment businesses failed.

So Houston's job, which began with global headlines and Jay Leno jokes, will end quietly on April Fool's Day.

The former city prosecutor says she's surprised at how swiftly the attention of state lawmakers shifted, especially given the increasing amount of Internet pornography accessible to children. Still, she says, she'll walk away next month satisfied that she made a difference.

Sitting in her small office with a sweeping view of the city below, Houston says people misunderstood the position from the beginning, fearing that she was going to be a government censor.

"I didn't do that. It wasn't my job, and it's still not," she says. "Some people didn't understand it, and some didn't want to."

Thousands of calls

Instead, she was an information clearinghouse, fielding thousands of phone calls from parents concerned about Internet spam, advising the Legislature and speaking to students and civic groups.

"It's very frustrating for citizens, especially parents, to call in to their government for help and hit a roadblock," she says. "We're not talking about nude centerfolds. We're talking about very graphic, unsolicited mail and e-mail."

Houston reaches across her desk and holds up an unopened bulk-mailed envelope addressed to her at the "SC Building," the state capital. Inside is a DVD filled with close-up scenes of sex. Thousands of Utahans got them, and some forwarded the discs to her with their complaints. So she didn't have to open this envelope to know what it contained.

"Why should anyone get this unsolicited?" she asks.

The same goes for "mousetraps" that lure Internet users with innocent-looking ads, then bounce them from porn site to porn site, or sites that override any attempt by a user to leave, she says.

Soft-spoken and with a round, pleasant face, Houston looks more like an elementary school teacher than like the woman charged with battling merchants of sleaze.

She is, like her boss and 70 percent of the state's population, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brought up on ranches in Idaho and Montana, she rarely saw television.

Longtime prosecutor

Houston was a Mormon missionary in New Zealand for 18 months before receiving her law degree from Brigham Young University in 1986. After graduation, she was a prosecutor in West Valley City, the state's second-most-populous city, for 15 years.

Fourteen people applied for the job, which was established by the Legislature in 2000 and formally called "obscenity and pornography complaints ombudsman." In choosing Houston over other prosecutors and law enforcement officers, Shurtleff proclaimed her "absolutely the most qualified."

Before she even had business cards printed, Houston was fending off inquiries about her sexual experience and whether her Mormon religion might influence her decisions.

In the opening sentence of a front-page profile, the Salt Lake Tribune said she was "an acknowledged virgin who rarely watches R-rated movies."

Houston, who has never been married, denied that the newspaper asked her directly, but it was too late. The sentence drew world attention and howls of local protest from readers and the newspaper's ombudsman, who called it an invasion of privacy. A Salt Lake radio talk show played Madonna's "Like a Virgin" each time Houston was discussed.

Houston says of the incident, "I was surprised how long it went on. My personal life was irrelevant then and it's irrelevant now."

Even some of those who had fun at her expense give Houston some grudging respect.

`A very brave act'

"She took on the job, which was a very brave act," says Tom Barberi, the talk show host who played the Madonna tune. "She is very articulate, very bright, very conscientious. She was more of a victim than anything else."

Barberi and Dani Eyer, executive director of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, praise Houston for prodding the Legislature last year to make Utah's obscenity law conform to the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings.

Lawmakers revised a law banning public nudity that might be viewed by minors. The law had allowed Brigham Young University officials to remove several nude sculptures by Rodin from a traveling exhibit. The new law exempts displays that have artistic value.

"She surprised them," Barberi says of the lawmakers. "They thought they were getting a bluenose, and they got more than they bargained for."

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