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House OKs funds for Justice to prosecute obscenity cases

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved July 26 legislation authorizing up to $5 million to prosecute obscenity cases for a Justice Department that has refused to target such pornographic material.

The House voted 412-4 for the Illegal Pornography Prosecution Act. The bill, H.R. 4710, would authorize for the 2001 financial year money to be used by Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section for staffing, travel and other expenses to prosecute obscenity cases.

Members of Congress have clashed with the Justice Department about its focus on child pornography to the nearly total exclusion of obscenity. At a May hearing before a House subcommittee, a Justice official acknowledged the department had used $1 million specified by Congress for obscenity prosecutions to deal with child pornography instead. Congress had appropriated money for child pornography prosecutions separately, said displeased Rep. Steve Largent, R.-Okla.

This legislation “puts the Justice Department on notice that it must begin protecting our families, schools and libraries from the explosive growth of obscenity, particularly over the Internet,” said Largent, chief sponsor of the new bill, in a written statement. “With this bill, we will hold the Justice Department accountable for upholding the laws against obscenity.”

Shannon Royce, legislative counsel for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “Now the Justice Department won’t have any excuses for failing to prosecute obscenity. As usual, Mr. Largent has demonstrated himself to be a friend of the family and a friend of believers.”

In the May hearing, evidence of the deemphasis on obscenity prosecutions and convictions was provided by Robert Flores, a former official with the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, and Alan Gershel, a deputy assistant attorney general at Justice. CEOS gained 126 obscenity convictions from 1989 to 1995, with forfeitures and fines totaling $24 million, Flores said in his written testimony. Since 1996, there have been no more than 20 prosecutions, not convictions, for obscenity exclusive of child pornography, Gershel said.

The shift from diligence against obscenity came swiftly when President Clinton took office in 1993, Flores told Baptist Press. CEOS, however, had enough prosecutions under way to keep it busy on obscenity cases during the first few years of the Clinton White House, Flores said. After it concluded those, the section’s efforts to start new obscenity prosecutions died, he said.

Meanwhile, obscenity’s growth on the Internet since 1995 has exploded, Flores said, according to his written testimony at the hearing. It is estimated there are anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 pornographic sites on the World Wide Web, Largent said at the hearing.

The Justice Department takes “the view that child pornography is the worst kind of obscenity, and we believe that is the primary mission of [CEOS] at this time,” Gershel said at the hearing. Child pornography is where the department’s resources in Washington and in the 94 United States attorney’s offices “are being primarily devoted,” he said. In 1999, DOJ filed an all-time high of 510 federal child-porn cases resulting in 378 convictions, Gershel said.

Gershel acknowledged at the hearing there had been a “dramatic increase” in child porn in the last three to four years, and Rep. Chip Pickering, R.-Miss., said the department’s “lax effort” on obscenity may be the reason.

Obscenity and child pornography “overlap. They’re integrated. They contribute to each other. And until you address both, you’re going to continue to see a dramatic increase [in child porn],” Pickering told Gershel.

The legal test for pornographic material to be judged obscene is a three-pronged standard established in a 1973 Supreme Court opinion. Under what is known as the Miller test, the material must appeal to a “prurient” interest in sex, be “patently offensive” and lack social value. This stringent standard is based on the local community’s standards.