Sifting out pornography from free speech

THE United States is undertaking a major drive to curb pornography and obscene materials. And this thrust is most likely to be successful if the steps taken are consistent with freedom-of-speech guarantees and can garner widespread public support.

However, broad-based antipornography legislation or ordinances don't always meet these criteria. Although well intentioned, the laws are often vague or too sweeping and end up failing a constitutional test.

Recent municipal laws restricting the sale of pornographic materials on the basis that they discriminate against women have sparked national attention -- and controversy.

Civil libertarians say these laws tend to be too broad and would block the legitimate display and distribution of books, magazines, films, and other things which may be ``adult'' but are not ``obscene.''

They fear unwarranted censorship.

However, feminist groups in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis -- seeking municipal bans on obscene materials -- have argued that pornography violates their civil rights. They say they should be allowed to bring suit against purveyors of books, movies, and videotapes that debase women. The groups hold that curbing pornography is quite different from engaging in censorship. The latter is illegal government supression of constitutionally protected expression. However, pornography doesn't come under this First Amendment umbrella, they point out.

Some groups have attempted to find a cause-and-effect relationship that would link sexual violence toward women with the possession of pornography by the perpetrator of such crimes. So far, evidence seems to be indirect and inconclusive.

The entire debate recently moved to the national level with the creation of the attorney general's Commission on Pornography.

But the emphasis now seems to be on protecting children from sexual exploitation.

Deputy US Attorney General Lowell Jensen, testifying before this blue-ribbon panel, stressed the importance of finding ways to shield young people from pornography. And William Webster, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said he needs better local law-enforcement cooperation to prosecute child-exploitation cases.

Mr. Webster also pointed out that new federal legislation is already helping authorities track down interstate trafficking of nude photographs of youngsters.

Over the next year the pornography commission will focus specifically on the effects on children of such new technologies as home videocassette recorders and cable television systems, which have made sexually explicit materials widely available.

Several communities are already getting tough with those who openly rent -- in shopping malls and corner stores -- sexually explicit videocassettes. Maricopa County (Phoenix, Ariz.) has lodged obscenity charges against such shop owners. And Cincinnati and Memphis, among other cities, have acted to limit the availability of such films at rental outlets.

In New York starting Nov. 1 it will be illegal to display pornography on magazine racks. And Gov. Mario Cuomo recently signed a bill that forbids the display of sexually explicit reading matter in stores open to the general public.

This new legislation is designed to include places such as stationery stores to protect children from casually viewing pornography, as on magazine covers.

Further, some telephone companies are seeking court rulings on their obligation toward firms supplying ``adult entertainment'' phone messages. Pacific Northwest Bell, for one, reports it is getting many complaints, particularly from parents of children who are gaining access to the numbers from schoolmates.

Two Republican US senators, Jeremiah Denton of Alabama and Paul S. Trible Jr. of Virginia, have introduced congressional legislation to make it a crime for child pornographers, child molesters, and pedophiles to use computers to facilitate their dealings. An FBI report says computer use for this purpose is increasing.

However, Justice Department officials have told Senator Denton's Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism that legislation seeking to ban the transmission of descriptive information about juveniles could run into serious First Amendment questions since the material is not, in and of itself, obscene or indecent.

A Thursday column

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