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October 14, 2016

Revisiting Old Combat Zones in the War on Porn

This article ran in AVN magazine's October 2016 issue as part of a cover package exploring the war on porn. See the digital edition here. Mark Kernes writes this month about the latest battle in the war on porn, including Utah’s junk-science conclusion that pornography is a health hazard. This is really just a subset of the Republicans’ war on sex, which has been going on since at least the Reagan administration. Popular wisdom teaches that, at the time of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, the Republican Party was controlled by wealthy individuals and large corporations. The Republicans, however, came to learn that, although money could purchase large amounts of television time, that was not enough—especially down-ticket. The early 1980s also happened to be the time of the strong emergence of the televangelist—Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and a gaggle of others. The Republicans figured out that they could capitalize on the enormous base of voters that already was reeling from the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and was looking to insinuate right-wing Christianity into the federal government. The tactic worked, contributing to Reagan’s 1980 election. Realizing how well that worked, the Republicans ramped up the recruitment of evangelicals, contributing to the 1984 Reagan landslide. After that, Reagan pandered to the evangelicals with a vengeance. Religious conservative Edwin Meese III was appointed as the attorney general, and his Department of Justice orchestrated a war on porn—a distraction from the that fact he would be unable to deliver on his promise to rid the country of Roe v. Wade. General Meese superintended the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography. From June of 1985 to January of 1986, the Commission traveled around the country putting on dog-and-pony shows in the image of the Kefauver Commission on Organized Crime during the early 1950s. Evangelicals were delighted with all of this. In July of 1986, Meese unveiled his two-volume, nearly 2,000-page Final Report, soon to become a best-seller at the Government Printing Office. The report included scores of recommendations of what could be done about the supposed problem of pornography—notwithstanding the fact that it generally found porn to be harmless. These included recommending that Congress enact a series of regulations, one of which would become the federal record-keeping and labeling law, 18 U.S.C. §2257. Others involved increasing the punishment for obscenity violations, including forfeiture. But the recommendations did not stop with Congress. They also suggested that the Department of Justice create a special unit to prosecute obscenity violations on a nationwide basis. Before then, it had been left to local United States attorneys. The idea was for the feds to level the playing field against the First Amendment Lawyers Association, as well as to push Meese’s agenda to overrule local U.S. attorneys who thought that obscenity cases were less important than other regional problems. (That attitude got a couple of them fired during the George W. Bush presidency.) The recommendations went on to suggest measures that should be taken by local governments. That included zoning, licensing and prohibitions against private video-viewing booths at adult bookstores. Meese then went to work. The obscenity strike force was assembled, and the mission was to put every adult video manufacturer out of business. For starters, the “Unit” launched Operation Postporn, aimed at putting every adult mail-order company out of business. Not all that long after that came Operation Woodworm, designed to put the adult video companies out of business. Now, closing down an entire industry may seem to you as an absurd proposition. However, in the mid-1980s, the entire industry was cranking out a little over 1,000 titles a year—less than 100 titles a month. These were created by a handful of video companies, almost all located in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley—and they mostly had scripts back then. The standing joke was that the videos each included a random eight of the same 25 people. Accordingly, the idea of closing down all of these businesses was plausible. There just weren’t that many of them. The DOJ’s porn squad did substantial damage to the industry. Some companies were closed down, and some good people went to prison. Congress helped out with tougher obscenity laws, forfeiture provisions and 2257. And the Unit executed them—until 1993. Meese’s anti-porn dynamo continued in stride under Meese’s successor, Dick Thornburgh, on into the Bush 41 administration. However, Janet Reno, President Clinton’s attorney general, had no interest in continuing it. Many of the porn squad prosecutors resigned. The others were re-directed to focus on child porn, obviously a more noble purpose. During the Clinton administration, two things happened: On the one hand, the federal government left the porn industry alone. On the other hand, the video manufacturers that survived the Meese/Thornburgh assault multiplied like rabbits—and the internet provided a whole new marketing avenue. You know the rest: Bush 43 appointed evangelist John Ashcroft, obviously intent on re-instituting what General Meese started a decade and a half earlier. But then these two airplanes hit the World Trade Center. So Bush II started some actual wars instead. His administration dabbled in attacking the porn industry, but never had much success. Then Obama took over; and it was back to the Bill Clinton approach. Now the good part. In the late 1980s, Jimmy Swaggart found himself embroiled in two sex scandals that got him defrocked. Around the same time, Jim Bakker was indicted and convicted of fraud, which brought him a 45-year prison sentence. Robert Showers, the first head of the Meese’s obscenity squad, was asked to resign after being investigated in connection with alleged document destruction. Although later exonerated, he left the Department of Justice shortly thereafter. Republicans still court evangelicals with the zeal that started in the Reagan administration; you can expect them to continue to exploit these voters to keep the wealthy in that station in life. And along with it, expect more Republican stunts like the junk science in Utah. Clyde DeWitt is a Las Vegas attorney, who is also licensed in California and Texas. Learn more at ClydeDeWitt.com.

 
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