Federal Government Learns There is “Obscenity” on Internet; Is Sort of Prosecuting It

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The New York Times reported last week on a newly discovered program funded — but not run — by the Justice Department, which apparently pays two retired detectives to look at "sexual Web sites and other Internet traffic" to see if they can find some obscene material that the government should prosecute.  The program is funded by a $150,000 grant that in turn is based on an "earmark" provision sponsored by a representative from Virginia.

According to the Times, the actual grant recipient is Morality in Media, a conservative/religious group dedicated to fighting pornography.  The group runs a website called ObscenityCrimes.org, which provides an online complaint form for citizens to report obscenity.  (The DOJ’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force links to all this on its website.)  No fewer than 67,000 complaints have allegedly been filed through this website over the last few years.

Prosecutions to date: zero.

This particular program does not target child pornography — that is investigated and prosecuted by a different DOJ section — and the DOJ itself is not devoting any energy to this one.  The Times said that the department "seems not to take [it] very seriously," and noted that the department’s website not only cautions people against filing false complaints but actually advises them not to go hunting for obscenity, partly because "men are particularly vulnerable to pornographic addiction."  Except, apparently, for the retired law-enforcement officers who are being paid to surf for porn, who are immune.

DOJ grants to the program so far total $300,000, and the group is hoping for another renewal this year, despite the lack of results.  The president of Morality in Media said he understood why "some people might say" the program was not worth the money, but implied that the fault lay with the Justice Department for not following up on any prosecutions.

On the other hand, Stephen Bates, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who discovered the program through a Freedom of Information Act request, said that its First Amendment implications were serious.  Basically, he said in an op-ed piece last month, the government had outsourced criminal investigation of the topic to a religious-oriented group that was not accountable for possible overreaching in the way the DOJ might be.

Speaking of accountability, I also learned on the DOJ site that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was in Baghdad this weekend, apparently looking for a safer environment than he’s been in lately.

Link: New York Times