FBI's big pornography crackdown reveals organized crime influence

The nation's biggest-ever crackdown on purveyors of hard-core pornography is yielding these results: * It lays to rest any doubts about the vastness of the pornography business in the United States. It is, FBI director William H. Webster says, a $4 billion-a-year industry.

* It reveals the national scope and sophisticated organization of the US pornography trade. Key producers and distributors of pornography gather together about twice a year from cities such as Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Cleveland; Providence, Rhode Island, and Miami to discuss legal strategies and sales, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

* It erases any doubt about the control, sometimes through violent means, of organized crime over the pornography trade.

Several key persons among the 45 indicted here last week as the result of a 2 1/2-year undercover investigation by the FBI have been identified by federal sources as prominent members of organized crime "families," often known as the Mafia. These figures, the FBI now alleges, control the pornography industry in the US through "threats of force and use of force."

Past investigations have pointed to the murders of persons believed to have incurred the enmity of Mafia pornography dealers.

The FBI's offensive against the nation's biggest pornography producers and distributors also ends, at least for now, a lengthy record of reluctance on the part of the FBI and many local law enforcement agencies to crack down on pornography.

There are several factors behind the previous reluctance:

First, there has been an acceptance of pornography by a growing part of the public. This acceptance is seen in the rapidly expanding pornography industry, an industry ultimately supported by individual buyers across the nation. To what extent this has influenced decisions by law enforcement officials is difficult to assess. But FBI officials here admit pornography has not been a very high priority for the FBI or most other law enforcement agencies in recent years.

Second, the most common antipornography strategy, closing down specific retail outlets, has largely resulted in "piddling cases," says William Nettles Jr., the No. 2 FBI man here. A store may be closed, but the owners often face mild penalties and may reopen under another name, he says. The attempt to detect obscene materials in the mail is difficult because it "takes almost an act of Congress to mess with the mails," Mr. Nettles said in an interview.

Finally, the legal definition of obscenity has not been -- and still is not -- precise.

In 1966 the US Supreme Court defined obscene materials as those "utterly without redeeming social value." This was followed by defense attorneys claiming some social value in even the most hard-core pornography. In 1973 the Supreme Court replaced the "social value" criteria with "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." This standard, seen by some as an easier basis for prosecution, must be applied by local juries.

The 45 persons indicted by the Justice Department are charged with conspiracy and interstate transportation of obscene material. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Defense attorneys are expected to base their cases on First Amendment freedom-of-speech rights and to challenge the classification of the materials in question as obscene.

A tough court battle lies ahead, in the view of federal prosecutors here.

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