Utah's 'porn czarina' targets an elusive purveyor: the Net

A bouquet of yellow roses, sent from well-wishers, sits on Paula Houston's desk, half-withered after a long week in a sun-bathed office.

Ms. Houston herself is fresh and ready for battle, though for her, too, it has been a trying five days. She is Utah's - and the nation's - first state official with the singular purpose of fighting pornography.

Dubbed the "porn czarina," Houston's official duties began last week, and she already has a notebook full of people and organizations eager to aid her groundbreaking effort.

But she's also become a punch line on late-night television and seen her personal life subjected to surprising scrutiny in the Salt Lake City press, which confirmed, for instance, that the single Houston has refrained from premarital sex as called for by her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

While that probing of her private life outraged even some critics of Houston's new role, it made plain just how rough the ride may be for the former prosecutor, daughter of a cattle rancher, and avid hiker.

Low key and with the bearing of a civil servant rather than a politician, Houston, however, seems unflustered. While an aggressive opponent of pornography, she voices understanding of the complexity of the issue both as a legal and social matter.

"It's going to be a balancing act," says Houston. "I know the importance of the First Amendment and privacy. I don't want anyone taking those rights from me, either," she adds. "But there needs to be some balance between that and the damage some of this pornography can do."

Houston knows of the damage, from experience.

As a prosecutor in the City Attorney's office in West Valley City, a lower-income community on the edge of Salt Lake City, Houston cut her teeth on a pornography case. Her office helped the police build a successful sting operation against a video rental store that was distributing hardcore pornography to select customers. During her stint as a prosecutor, she says she handled five or so pornography cases, but also saw its impact in other cases, such as domestic violence.

Legal climate

US courts have generally supported efforts to restrict obscene material, provided it can be defined as such according to local standards. In conservative Utah, explicit sexual videos can be counted on to run afoul of local values, making for successful prosecution of hardcore porn.

Houston got a guilty plea in that early case and says she learned enough of pornography's social damage that when the state Legislature created the officially titled "pornography complaints ombudsman" position last year, she immediately applied.

"What I liked was her level of experience," says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who picked her from a field of 14 applicants. Houston was hired, given a one-page job description, and a modest office in a downtown government building.

If the new job has a chance of succeeding anywhere, it probably does in Utah, where the Mormon Church dominates and is unabashed about using the public agenda to set moral standards.

"It's crazy," says Salt Lake City Mayor Ross Anderson, a critic of the new post. "Some of us get a little tired of the church moralizing through legislation like this."

To be precise, it was the state legislature in general that created the new post, and one man in particular who led the charge.

One man's crusade

That man is dairy farmer Evan Olson, who during his last year in the Utah Legislature carried the bill through with strong support from colleagues and Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt.

"Pornography is dangerous and contagious, and it's growing on the Internet," says Mr. Olson.

Indeed, supporters of the new post cite no particular incident that galvanized their efforts. But several, like Olson, say the Internet has set off alarm bells by making a mockery of zoning and other age-old methods of local control over obscene material.

While the courts have allowed local standards and the notion of broader social damage as grounds for preventing strip clubs and adult movie houses, seeking controls on the Internet is a far more formidable challenge for a state. Its action against the Internet, for instance, can be construed as an attempt to restrain interstate commerce.

Still, Houston says "the ultimate for me would be a solution to the Internet problem."

But tempering that goal is Houston's experience and understanding of what it takes to build a successful case. She showed that savvy recently when a representative of the Overcoming Pornography Addictions group came calling. He carefully drew out on a piece of paper how various websites are assigned to specific categories: ".com" for businesses, ".org" for nonprofits, and so on. His idea was to lobby for the national adoption of a similar designation for obscene or pornographic material, thus making it easier to filter out such material.

While Houston was intrigued, she instantly recognized the sticking point: "it sounds good, but then you have the problem of how you define what makes a pornographic site."

Such prosecutorial know-how is clearly an asset, but taking people to court is not her main function. The job description spells out a range of duties, mostly advising local governments and citizens seeking ways to curtail the invasion of obscene material into their communities.

One of Houston's most formidable tasks is developing a comprehensive "moral nuisance" law for Utah and a model ordinance for municipalities.

The way Attorney General Shurtleff sees it, purveyors of porn are aggressively trying to manipulate First Amendment rights and blur the line between free speech and actions harmful to individuals and the community. "What really gets me broiled is there is some pornographer out there trying to hook my kids," he says.

The American Civil Liberties Union is worried about Houston's new role, but has taken no action yet. "We didn't feel it was the kind of law we could challenge, on its face," says Carol Gnade of the ACLU's Salt Lake City office.

But the ACLU is poised. "If we hear from a citizen that his First Amendment, or due process, or privacy is violated, then we'll take action," Ms. Gnade promises.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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