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John Ashcroft on web porn:
June 11, 2001 7:43 PM   Subscribe

John Ashcroft on web porn: "I am concerned about obscenity and I'm concerned about obscenity as it relates to our children". I'm curious what those of you who are more on the conservative/libertarian side of things think about this. Are there special exemptions to the concept of free speech when it comes to this type of content? [more]
posted by owillis (40 comments total)

 
I am asking because I am trying to understand if this issue is exclusively the domain of the religious conservatives because it seems to be antithetical to the independent, non-governmental interference pov of Republicans and Libertarians, from my admittedly totally biased viewpoint.
posted by owillis at 7:46 PM on June 11, 2001


I thought he was talking about obesity when I first read that. Quite a different impression, I received.
posted by Hankins at 8:04 PM on June 11, 2001


Oh, don't forget far left feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon.
posted by mw at 8:05 PM on June 11, 2001


I now see you had religious emphasized, meaning are these the only conservatives who espouse this view. In that case, ignore my comment and I'd answer yes. This "libertarian" conservative certainly has no use for it.
posted by mw at 8:10 PM on June 11, 2001


mw: Who both live in Canada, right? It's a new twist on the "Blame Canada" thing I'm trying to start here.
posted by raysmj at 8:12 PM on June 11, 2001


Govt can't illegalize adult web sites to any greater degree than it does print and video adult products. The courts won't stand for it. Ashcroft has to realize the Internet is an adult medium. Television is an adult medium. Children require supervision when being exposed to either medium.
posted by fleener at 8:22 PM on June 11, 2001


owilis, the answer to your direct question is "No, there are no special exemptions to the concept of free speech." To allow even the slightest "well, except in this case" type reasoning doesn't just weaken Free Speech - it effectively nullifies it. No Libertarian who knows what being Libertarian actually means would disagree with that - Government never has the right to decide what you can see, listen to or log onto. Conservatives are another thing, though; try to remember that there are conservatives who are neither Religious nor Social Conservatives, but more Fiscal Conservatives. My experience with fiscal conservatives is that they are all for pornography, as long as they see that someone will pay for it...
posted by m.polo at 8:32 PM on June 11, 2001


I'm a fiscal conservative, I like my porn free and nasty.
posted by Mick at 8:40 PM on June 11, 2001


::: Ashcroft has to realize the Internet is an adult medium. Television is an adult medium. Children require supervision when being exposed to either medium. :::

This is an interesting statement. Are there any mediums that are NOT adult? Coming from a comic-book background, I can't even begin to list the number of times I've heard from parents outraged that there could be adult content (usually clearly labelled) in a comic book, because they're "for kids."

In my experience with porn sites (yeah yeah, laugh it up), they're almost always password-protected. I'd worry more about my kid seeing somebody's head explode on TNT then stumbling upon www.ihavegreattits.com. (I don't know if that's a real address, and I don't care).
posted by logovisual at 8:44 PM on June 11, 2001


what i wonder the most is, how much is it going to take before the american people realize they are going to be railroaded into another puritan era? is mr. ashcroft going to have to start installing telescreens (see: "1984", george orwell) in our homes and publicizing every time a guy (or girl) beats off?
posted by chemicalpilate at 9:17 PM on June 11, 2001


Always remember that entropy applies as much to evil as it does to good.
posted by davidgentle at 9:27 PM on June 11, 2001


ok... how many people checked?

it's not.

www.ihavegreattits.com is available! woohoo!
posted by o2b at 9:40 PM on June 11, 2001


In my experience with porn sites (yeah yeah, laugh it up), they're almost always password-protected.

This, unfortunately, is wishful thinking.
posted by lagado at 10:06 PM on June 11, 2001


This is such a difficult topic. There's never going to be an answer to it that will suit everyone. I think Ashcroft is being extreme on the one end. Personally, I believe all information should be free on the Internet, including images, and yes that includes images of naked women. This should be available without penalty. That's the opposite extreme to Ashcroft.

There are people who think children should be supervised on the 'Net. This doesn't work because parents cannot be with their children constantly, and any computer program designed to "protect" children, can with nominal difficulty be overridden, nullified or hacked.

There are people who think children shouldn't be allowed on the 'Net at all. This is entirely absurd, because if information should be free to all, that must include all people regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and last but certainly not least, regardless of age.

There are still other people who believe children should be allowed on the 'Net, and some government entity should somehow police the 'Net in order to make every single available page on the 'Net suitable for children.

This would mean not only pictures of naked women, but the use of words like shit, fuck, piss, cocksucker, etc. And it would gravitate towards extreme political views or religious views, until the Internet becomes just as vanilla and "inoffensive" as the more conventional media which the Internet has strived to supplement, complement, and in many cases outright replace.

This would mean censorship. At best, they could make it more difficult to access the "sensitive information." Throwing someone in jail for having a website is like throwing someone in jail for publishing a book.

The conservatives have their opinions. The liberals have theirs. All along the spectrum there are ideas regarding this and everyone seems to think they have a solution. I contend there is no solution that will be enforcable, or will please even a slight majority of the people on this planet. The only real way to resolve this is to turn off the Internet completely. If we do that, we might as well return to the caves and throw stones at the moon.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:16 PM on June 11, 2001


Freedom of speech is absolute, period.

Freedom of speech on the Internet is absolute, period.

What children can and can't see on the net is a subject that their respective parents/guardians should address, not John "I want to turn America into a theocracy" Ashcroft or anyone else in the government regulate with a law. Not only does Ashcroft want to break down the separation between church and State, but he also now wants to slowly chip away at the first amendment.
posted by Bag Man at 10:50 PM on June 11, 2001


if i had children, i'd much rather them see pictures of naked people than looking at something like rotten.com, where they can see mummified people and dead babies. (not that i'd necessarily want them to look at either one, but you get my point.)

and maybe by children i mean adolescents, even though i know adolescence is a social construct. teenagers, maybe. people are curious about sex from the minute they figure out what it is. curiosity about sexual activity is normal -- wanting to look at people having sex is healthier, i think, than wanting to look at severed heads.

but as a "libertarian" i don't think it's the government's place to tell anyone what to look at. if i have children who like to look at something like rotten.com, i need to deal with why they want to see. i don't need someone making the content there, abhorrent as it may seem to me, unavailable. the responsibility lies with me, not with a government who decides what is and isn't "obscene."
posted by sugarfish at 10:53 PM on June 11, 2001


At the core of these arguments to protect children is an assumption that children are being harmed by exposure to sex or violence or whatever the target of the week is. When I was studying psychology in the late 1980s, a side issue of my thesis was the psychological basis for censorship of porn. I didn't find any studies that showed harm to children from exposure to pornography.

Harm itself is rarely even defined in these debates. The implication is that children are harmed by simply experiencing porn, but no one articulates what that harm is. Is it being temporarily upset by something they don't understand? Is it knowing what sex is? Is it knowing that gay people exist? Is it believing that anything but the missionary position is sinful? It depends on who you ask. What a fundamentalist parent considers harmful may be considered essential to a sexually uninhibited parent, and vice versa.
posted by neuroshred at 10:57 PM on June 11, 2001


As far as pre-teens go, would there be much harm in not allowing them to go online unsupervised? Much like you wouldn't allow them in the kitchen unsupervised? At the same time, you would teach them what is acceptable to be viewed within your household...

(I say this because this the tactic my mother took with me with regards to movies and television - I would say it was about 70% effective)
posted by owillis at 11:07 PM on June 11, 2001


This basically ties into the earlier post about Salon.com's review and interview with Marjorie Heins new book, suggesting there has never been any real evidence for believing sex and violence in media harm children. And regardless, it seems that the best thing is to raise your kids to be intelligent consumers of media in their world- they're going to be adults for the vast majority of their lives after all, and at some point will be making these choices entirely on their own.

I would posit, actually, that the majority of both liberals and conservatives support freedom of speech, even if there's a chance kids are checking out things of questionable value- which also goes to show you the flimsiness of trying to divide people up using terminology like "liberal" and "conservative", I suppose.
posted by hincandenza at 11:28 PM on June 11, 2001



Porn harms Children! Protect the Children!

I was discussing a similar topic with my mom on the phone last night. Trying to explain to her the differences between the culture and attitudes here in Europe and back home in the states.

Generally, things aren't scandalized here as they are in the states. In Vienna, a city of around 2 million, you will likely see all of the following things if you take a short walk down any of the streets in downtown:
billboards with naked or scantily clad women and / or men in suggestive poses, outdoor newsstands prominently displaying hard core pornographic magazines (along with more standard fare), beautiful architecture, and unchaperoned children (many under the age of ten) making their way around town.

In my opinion, puritanically scandalizing any object / behaviour is where the real problem lies. Children aren't hurt by pornography - they are hurt when they look at it out of curiosity and subsequently spend years trying to deal with the guilt (imposed on them by warped societal / parental mores). They aren't hurt by alcohol, they are hurt by attitudes that make alcohol seem like some forbidden pleasure only available to adults - they sneak to get it when underage and go overboard when they are finally legal.

As for me, I think I'll stay in Europe. The attitudes are more healthy and realistic here, and the outcomes (a city of 2 million where parents don't mind sending their under 10 kids out unaccompanied in downtown) are hard to argue with.
posted by syzygy at 2:33 AM on June 12, 2001


From a technology point of view, anyone who thinks that the government can control content on the internet does not understand the gargantuan size of such a task.
posted by magellan at 5:30 AM on June 12, 2001


All I can say to the government is good luck. Pornography is a lot like soylent green... it's made of people!


If they shut down all the commercial sites, there are an army of web loggers / webcam users more than willing to create the pornography themselves.
posted by insomnia_lj at 6:16 AM on June 12, 2001


My favorite solution to this debate is to create an adult top level domain, and move all the obvious porn sites to it. Web browsers could then simply block the TLD.
posted by matt324 at 7:02 AM on June 12, 2001


How does porn harm children? It takes away their opportunity to discover these things for themselves.

In my experience, sex is better when I'm able to ignore all the ideas and images of what sex is "supposed" to be like that I've gotten from various media and concentrate on my actual relationship with my wife.

I realize not everyone feels this way, but I think it would be better if kids had a chance to grow up and experience the reality before they had to decide whether they thought porn would enhance or detract from their sexuality. I wish I had.
posted by straight at 7:09 AM on June 12, 2001


I saw my 1st playboy when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. It was hilarious. the fact that I was looking at something I "wasn't supposed to see" made it all the better.

if I had a kid I would want to deal with this situation on my terms based upon my views. not this prudent, bible banger, ashcroft's views.

he just wants to extend the Big Lie.
posted by Qambient at 7:57 AM on June 12, 2001


Marjorie Heins. That was the name.

Of course, the fact that she took the time to write that book, which looks very good though I haven't actually read it yet (since *I'm* pretty sure of what I think there, and I'm pretty sure I won't be surprised), won't likely have any productive effect on the last little bit of puritanism that holds America back.

Nice link, BTW, Insomnia. Thanks.
posted by baylink at 8:36 AM on June 12, 2001


Why should the government be doing the job of parents?

How are the religious conservatives and libertarians getting along in that big tent over there?

Did you know that about 20% of US Internet users peruse online porn?

What... is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
posted by andrewraff at 8:36 AM on June 12, 2001


Did any of you actually follow the link and read what Ashcroft was addressing? He wasn't talking about porn, he was talking about child pornography and sexual solicitations of children.

Hi, facts, real quotes, good things to know!
posted by Dreama at 8:40 AM on June 12, 2001


So what? The discussion is about a more general issue.
posted by rodii at 9:02 AM on June 12, 2001


Ashcroft's comments covered both general pornography and child pornography/sexual solicitations of children.

Personally, I took his comments in the original transcript to be nothing but lip service. They were either that or vague and unrealistic, much like other things said in Washington.
posted by Dick Paris at 9:28 AM on June 12, 2001


Free speech, as a legal concept, is not absolute, and never has been. "The freedom of speech" (what the 1st Amendment protects) has always excluded obscenity, defamation, copyright infringement, incitements to riot, etc.

Anyone who argues that obscenity cannot be barred is not arguing in favor of our Constitutional values, but, rather, for an entirely new and radical set of values to be adopted.

The problem that the courts have always grappled with is, "What is obscene?" The answer now is (roughly) something that appeals to prurient interests (i.e., has a sexual content), grossly offends community values and has no redeeming social, artistic, or scientific value.

Internet porn is actually far more easily subject to prosecution than is hard-copy porn, as Internet porn, by definition, goes everywhere, into even the most conservative communities where you can't even buy a Playboy in a liquor store.
posted by MattD at 10:12 AM on June 12, 2001


Dick Paris -- where in Ashcroft's comments does he address porn in general?
posted by Dreama at 10:14 AM on June 12, 2001


Bag Man -- free speech is NOT absolute -- (classic example: you aren't allowed to shout "Fire!" in a crowded auditorium.) Why? Because that creates a strong likelihood that someone will be injured. Child pornography, if real, undoubtedly causes harm to the photographed models -- therefore it should be illegal. The issues around making digitally fake child porn are fuzzier, but I still have my wonders that it should be legal. Ditto S/M porn -- what if it inspires just one person to attempt to inflict pain on another person -- is it worth it? However -- millions of people see S/M porn and are NOT inspired to kidnap and tie up strangers (that personal responsibility thing), so I guess it is okay.

But, Straight's point about the way in which you are influenced to feel "that sex is supposed to be a certain way" is also an excellent one, and this is where my real issues with pornography lie. As a teenage girl, I spent a lot of time sneaking peeks at my dad's magazines, and WORRYING that I needed to look like that to catch guys. Pornography influenced my self-image and self-esteem tremendously -- made me feel that there was a constant audience of men out there judging the size of my breasts, the way I stood, how pretty I was, etc. Of course, there are other magazines (mostly beauty) that helped those feelings along, but nothing but the men's magazines made me feel that my value as a human being was reduced to nothing but my cunt, to be very blunt. As a result, I truly hate them. It took me a long time to work through these issues and realize that there are other things about me that have value.

P.S. Matt 324 -- your idea is great! Please publicize if you can. Best idea on this I've heard.
posted by jfwlucy at 10:18 AM on June 12, 2001


"In explicit terms, the attorney general told Congress this week that hardcore sex sites would no longer be selling peeks at balloon-breasted babes."

Balloon-breasted babies perhaps?

"He [Ashcroft] said Justice Department prosecutors would help state officials imprison sex-site operators that feature obscene images."

Nothing about child pornography there.

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I thank you for the question. I am concerned about obscenity and I'm concerned about obscenity as it relates to our children.

My emphasis: again, he's not talking explicitly about child pornography; no worries, I did see in the article where it is mentioned specifically. Sorry, Dreama. I should have been more thorough.
posted by Dick Paris at 10:46 AM on June 12, 2001


Even still, there is a difference between run of the mill porn and obscenity.
posted by Dreama at 11:37 AM on June 12, 2001


Some people think "run of the mill porn" is obscene...
posted by owillis at 11:46 AM on June 12, 2001


How does porn harm children? It takes away their opportunity to discover these things for themselves.

In my experience, sex is better when I'm able to ignore all the ideas and images of what sex is "supposed" to be like that I've gotten from various media and concentrate on my actual relationship with my wife.


Then you'd have to ban all of those women's and teen magazines they sell in the grocery stores, those say you won't be able to get a guy unless you look/think/act this way and buy the products they have advertised. Comparatively, I think porn is far less judgmental, and I don't think it's really meant as a "how to" anyway.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:05 AM on June 13, 2001


Dagny, did you read the rest of my post? Yes, those magazines are harmful as well -- but it's the pornography that really reduces women to a specific set of body parts, for a very specific purpose. And at least the magazines do often also carry rvery positive messages about life issues, self-esteem, etc.

And I really disagree that porn is non-judgemental -- how often do you see overweight or older women in porn, unless it's amateur stuff or catering to a very specific audience. Women in mainstream porn are liposuctioned, augmented, bleached, shaved, and made up before they even begin to pose.
posted by jfwlucy at 8:36 AM on June 13, 2001


And I really disagree that porn is non-judgemental -- how often do you see overweight or older women in porn, unless it's amateur stuff or catering to a very specific audience. Women in mainstream porn are liposuctioned, augmented, bleached, shaved, and made up before they even begin to pose.

I wish I could remember the link, but I can't. I read something the other day saying that Playboy and the other "airbrush" perfect women magazines are rapidly losing market share to girl next door, spots on the ass type magazines.

The guys in porn are not exactly your average Joe either, I think that women get off lightly :-) in the non-judgmental stakes.
posted by bregdan at 2:10 PM on June 13, 2001


"At the core of these arguments to protect children is an assumption that children are being harmed by exposure to sex or violence or whatever the target of the week is."

The "harm" debate in question is religious in nature. This is not something that can be measured in a test tube, and arguably one can question whether such harm to one's soul is even applicable, or if it exists at all. I happen to believe that in some cases it does and can. However, I believe this to be true. That's my opinion and I have little more than faith to back it up. I happen to like some of these laws, but I accept that they are unconstitutional.

Some laws go into theology, and this is ultimately the true basis for an argument against any government enforced censorship. It is based on religious theocracy: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.." If there is to be a separation of church and state, that separation must include the restriction of the state to legislate morality on any level, unless all theocracies practiced by the people happen to agree. Otherwise, legislating and enforcing a law based on theology not accepted by all gives acknowledgment and credence to one slice of "the church" from the state, and allows that slice of "the church" indirect powers over the people via the state. It gives respect to a single establishment of religion over another. By this very action, it restricts those of any religion other than the one to which the state indirectly lends credence through such legistlation.

It's why that part of the first ammendment is there. The Judeo-Christian Church had a lot of power in Europe 200 years ago -- enough to get many people to traverse the dangerous waters of the Atlantic to settle here in the New World. Yet a large number of laws in the US are based either directly or indirectly on religious dogma. Now, most theocracies and philosophies agree: committing murder in cold blood is bad. While perhaps not universal, it's about as close as you can get among different belief structures. However, there are other laws on the books which are more blatantly specific to one theocracy or another. Such laws are unconstitutional: even if they happen to make sense.

And the average aetheist or agnostic would be within their rights to say that such laws are discrimination against their beliefs. Just because an individual may not have prescribed beliefs at all, or chooses to NOT believe in something, that doesn't mean their belief structure is any less valid than someone who believes in an old greyhaired man floating in the sky. Laws against prostitution, unconventional sexual practices, drug use, self-abuse, profanity in media, or even noise pollution can be argued as unconstitutional. Indeed most any law where there's not obvious physical damage to other individuals or property, aka "victimless crimes" are laws based on a legislation of morality.

I'm may be preaching the the choir here, but the american government is an exercise in hypocrisy, and has made a travesty of the first ammendment since day one. How can we claim to have a government separated from religious institutions when it's simultaneously "one nation under [one] god indivisible," and yet have "liberty and justice for all?"
posted by ZachsMind at 3:48 AM on June 16, 2001


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