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Bush Administration 25 for 25

WASHINGTON – Lam Nguyen arrives at work most mornings, a Starbucks in hand, switches on his computer and begins trolling for porn.

As a high-tech investigator for the Justice Department, Nguyen’s job is to surf for the worst of the worst. Until recently that mostly meant tracking down child pornography.

But the Justice Department has begun aggressively policing adult pornography as well, a turnaround from the Clinton administration, which brought almost no such cases.

So far, the Bush administration has a perfect record in the 25 adult obscenity cases it’s filed. The cases, brought in mostly conservative communities across the country, ended in two guilty verdicts and 23 guilty pleas. Charges are pending in a dozen other cases.

And the crackdown is expanding. Earlier this year, Attorney General John Ashcroft put noted anti-porn crusader Bruce Taylor on the Justice Department payroll as a senior counsel for the criminal division on obscenity issues. And President Bush’s 2005 budget proposal contains $4 million to hire more prosecutors and FBI agents devoted to targeting adult obscenity.

Free-speech advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, worry that the Justice Department is engaging in censorship.

And a representative of the adult entertainment business accuses Ashcroft of pandering to the Republican conservative base before next fall’s presidential election.

“It’s so transparently political,” said lawyer Jeffrey Douglas, the chairman of the Los Angeles-based Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the multibillion-dollar adult entertainment industry. “With this administration, if the results of other kinds of wars aren’t working you go to the culture wars.”

Andrew Oosterbaan, the chief of the Justice Department’s child exploitation and obscenity section, said he simply was enforcing the law.

“We are not the moral police,” Oosterbaan said. “The (obscenity) law has been on the books forever. It’s been weighed and determined and considered by the Supreme Court long, long, long ago. None of it has changed. The Internet has changed the way the law is broken but it hasn’t changed the law.”

Under former Attorney General Janet Reno, the Justice Department had no appetite for going after the adult porn industry, concentrating the department’s obscenity resources almost exclusively on child pornography.

Anti-porn activists say that neglect – combined with the explosion of the Internet – allowed the X-rated industry to flourish.

“The only thing that this industry listens to is the crack of the whip, and for eight years there was a window of anything goes,” said Donna Rice Hughes, the president of Enough Is Enough, a Virginia-based group dedicated to online children’s safety issues.

The Supreme Court has held that obscenity isn’t protected by the First Amendment. But exactly what is obscene is somewhat subjective. The high court said in 1973 that in order for material to be obscene an average person applying community standards must find it patently offensive and without artistic or scientific merit.

Reliable estimates about the size of the pornography industry are hard to come by, but anti-porn advocates say all you have to do is log on to the Internet to get a sense of how readily available pornographic material is. One recent study by the National Research Council, a branch of the private, nonprofit National Academies, estimated that there were 100,000 pornography Web sites.

“Parents are scared to death of the Internet,” said Oosterbaan, who led the violent crimes unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami before coming to Washington.

“They know their kids need to use the Internet to be successful in the world. But they are also frightened about them seeing things online that they are not ready to handle.”

So far, the Justice Department appears to be targeting mostly very graphic pornography depicting violence, simulated rapes and bestiality.

The highest-profile case that federal prosecutors have brought is against Extreme Associates, a Los Angeles-based adult video company that bills itself as the “Hardest Hard Core on the Web.”

The indictment charges owners Robert Zicari and Janet Romano with multiple counts of using the mail and the Internet to distribute obscene materials. If convicted, they face up to 50 years in prison and $2.5 million in fines.

Prosecutors targeted the husband-and-wife team after they appeared in a 2002 documentary about the pornography industry. Among the videotapes that jurors in the case will evaluate is “Forced Entry,” which prosecutors say shows simulations of women being spat on, raped and murdered.

The case is being tried not in Los Angeles, but in western Pennsylvania, where some of the videos ended up. Most of the cases the Justice Department has brought so far have been in conservative areas, where the community is more likely to be offended by the material, rather than in liberal-leaning big cities.

Jan LaRue, chief legal counsel for Concerned Women for America, a Christian public policy organization, said she was encouraged that the Justice Department was getting serious again about prosecuting the adult porn industry. But she said it had yet to go far enough.

“They need to prosecute some of the more mainstream material – not just the deviant stuff – and they need to go after some bigger targets.” La Rue said.

She said she expected Taylor’s arrival to herald bigger cases on the horizon, which could touch Fortune 500 hotel chains that carry pay-per-view porn in their rooms and cable providers who show hard-core movies.

Taylor was until recently president of the National Law Center for Children and Families in Virginia. He’s worked on some 700 obscenity cases during his 30-year legal career, which included a stint in the Justice Department’s child exploitation and obscenity unit from 1989 to 1993. In 1981, he represented the state of Ohio before the Supreme Court in the case against flamboyant Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.

In a 2002 interview with PBS he laid out a zero-tolerance approach and indicated that if cable or Internet companies are making deals with porn producers or distributors “then they are breaking the law just like the pornographers are.”

Douglas charged that the Bush administration was out of touch with America, where the appetite for pornography is on the rise and won’t abate because of a government crusade against it.

“Never before have we had an attorney general like John Ashcroft, who believes that sexually explicit material is an affront to God,” Douglas said. “They should go after crimes with real victims.”

But Nguyen, who spends his days investigating online pornography, said there was some troubling stuff out there.

“I thought after doing this for a while I couldn’t be surprised anymore, and then I see something and I’m shocked all over again,” he said.

 

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