Anti-porn groups want a hardcore response

Representatives of nearly a dozen anti-pornography organizations will meet with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft this week, hoping to persuade him to step up the U.S. Department of Justice's prosecution of obscenity cases, an area they say was all but ignored during the Clinton administration.

"If I was a prosecutor, I'd be like a kid in a candy store," said Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families, which aims to protect citizens from "the harmful effect of illegal pornography by assisting in law enforcement."

The past eight years have been tough for groups like Taylor's, as law enforcement agencies -- particularly the Justice Departmen -- have shown little interest in anti-porn efforts. "Janet Reno did not feel comfortable enforcing obscenity laws," Taylor said. "She didn't want to do it, and nobody made her do it."

The Bush administration's attorney general has already expressed interest in prosecuting obscenity cases. (Obscenity, which the Supreme Court has held is not protected by the First Amendment, is legally defined as material that appeals to "prurient interest" and lacks literary, artistic, political or scientific value.) In testimony to the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Ashcroft called pornography "a matter of great concern to me and to this administration." He went on to point out, however, that for now he is the only Justice Department official who has been confirmed by Congress, so he can't say exactly how the administration's concern will play out.

Naturally, Taylor and other anti-porn activists have some suggestions as to actions they'd like to see Ashcroft take, which they'll detail in a meeting with him Thursday. The list of groups participating in the meeting reads like a who's who of conservative, family-values activists, including Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, Morality in Media, Citizens for Community Values, the American Center for Law and Justice, Focus on the Family, and the Center for Reclaiming America.

One participant, American Family Association government-affairs director Patrick Trueman, said that during the Clinton years a number of mainstream corporations began trafficking, via cable TV and Internet divisions, in material that he believes is prosecutable under obscenity statutes. "We're going to lay out some evidence about several companies," said Trueman, who ran the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations. For now, the only such company Trueman is willing to name is the already-beleaguered Yahoo, whose GeoCities unit, he said, is rife with user-posted child pornography despite the company's recent decision to stop acting as a middleman for adult-video sellers.

The last time Trueman and his compatriots wielded significant influence with the Justice Department, in 1992, the Web was still in its infancy. But Trueman believes Net porn provides ample material for the same kind of interstate sting operations he specialized in during his Justice Department days.

But even during conservative administrations, obscenity-law prosecution has been a murky area of the law, full of potential First Amendment pitfalls and often open to challenges, so free-speech advocacy and Internet trade groups are unsure just how seriously they should take the anti-porn consortium's plans.

A lawyer for one free-speech advocacy group who requested anonymity is maintaining a wait-and-see attitude. "The question is whether they can walk the walk," he said of the anti-porn contingent. "It's expensive to prosecute these kinds of cases. There may be other priorities" in the new Justice Department.

Dave McClure, president of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, believes there eventually will be prosecutions, though he's uncertain whether they will be as effective legally as they are in generating publicity. Trueman, he maintains, is "not in the least interested in going after the people who actually sell this stuff. He wants to go after a big name like Yahoo (Inc.) or AOL (America Online Inc.)"

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