Administration wages war on pornography

Obscenity: For the first time in 10 years, the U.S. government is spending millions to file charges across the country.

April 06, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Lam Nguyen's job is to sit for hours in a chilly, quiet room devoid of any color but gray and look at pornography. This job, which Nguyen does earnestly from 9 to 5, surrounded by a half-dozen other "computer forensic specialists" like him, has become the focal point of the Justice Department's operation to rid the world of porn.

In this field office in Washington, 32 prosecutors, investigators and a handful of FBI agents are spending millions of dollars to bring anti-obscenity cases to courthouses across the country for the first time in 10 years. Nothing is off limits, they warn, even soft-core cable programs such as HBO's long-running Real Sex or the adult movies widely offered in guestrooms of major hotel chains.

Department officials say they will send "ripples" through an industry that has proliferated on the Internet and grown into an estimated $10 billion-a-year colossus profiting Fortune 500 corporations such as Comcast, which offers hard-core movies on a pay-per-view channel.

The Justice Department recently hired Bruce Taylor, who was instrumental in a handful of convictions obtained over the past year and unsuccessfully represented the state in a 1981 case, Larry Flynt vs. Ohio.

Flynt, who recently opened a Hustler nightclub in Baltimore, says everyone in the business is wary, making sure their taxes are paid and the "talent" is over 18. He says he's ready for a rematch, especially with Taylor.

"Everyone's concerned," Flynt said in an interview. "We deal in plain old vanilla sex. Nothing really outrageous. But who knows, they may want a big target like myself."

A recent episode of Showtime's Family Business, a reality show about Adam Glasser, an adult film director and entrepreneur in California, had him worrying about shipping his material to states more apt to prosecute. It also featured him organizing a pornographic Internet telethon to raise money for targets of prosecution.

Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the division in charge of obscenity prosecutions at the Justice Department, says officials are trying to send a message and halt an industry they see as growing increasingly "lawless."

"We want to do everything we can to deter this conduct" by producers and consumers, Oosterbaan said. "Nothing is off the table as far as content."

Money and friends

It is unclear, though, just how the American public and major corporations that make money from pornography will accept the perspective of the Justice Department and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Any move against mainstream pornography could affect large telephone companies offering broadband Internet service or the dozens of national credit card companies providing payment services to pornographic Web sites.

Cable television, meanwhile, which has found late-night lineups with "adult programming" highly profitable, is unlikely to budge, and such companies have powerful friends.

Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, which offers "hard-core" porn on the Hot Network channel (at $11.99 per film in Baltimore), was co-chair of Philadelphia 2000, the host committee that brought the Republican National Convention to Philadelphia. In February, the Bush campaign honored Comcast President Stephen Burke with "Ranger" status, for agreeing to raise at least $200,000 for the president's re-election effort. Comcast's executive vice president, David Cohen, has close ties to Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Tim Fitzpatrick, the spokesman for Comcast at its corporate headquarters in Philadelphia, declined to comment on the cable network's adult programming. But officials at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which Roberts used to chair, said adult programming is legal, relies on subscription services for access and has been upheld by the courts for years.

"Good luck turning back that clock," said Paul Rodriguez, a spokesman for the association.

Ashcroft vs. consent

In a speech in 2002, Ashcroft made it clear that the Justice Department intends to try. He said pornography "invades our homes persistently though the mail, phone, VCR, cable TV and the Internet," and has "strewn its victims from coast to coast."

Given the millions of dollars Americans are spending each month on adult cable television, Internet sites and magazines and videos, many may see themselves not as victims but as consumers, with an expectation of rights, choices and privacy.

Ashcroft, a religious man who does not drink alcohol or caffeine, smoke, gamble or dance, and has fought unrelenting criticism that he has trod roughshod on civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, is taking on the porn industry at a time when many experts say Americans are wary about government intrusion into their lives.

The Bush administration is eager to shore up its conservative base with this issue. Ashcroft held private meetings with conservative groups a year and a half ago to assure them that anti-porn efforts are a priority.

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