Vol. 10, No. 7

February 14 - 20, 2002

Current Issue
Black History — Pass It on Down
Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Bay Reflections
Burton on the Bay
Earth Journal
Not Just for Kids
Eight Days a Week
What's Playing Where
Between the Covers
Music Notes
Sky Watch
Bay Classifieds
Behind Bay Weekly
Advertising Info
Distribution spots
Contact us

In the General Assembly, Say No To Porno Czar

Back in the days of smoke-filled rooms, we lived in sight of a Statehouse. Each night at bedtime, we took what we feared might be our last look at its grand, illuminated dome. Before morning, we feared, a pack of lawmakers might make off with the entire rotunda — or succeed in painting it chartreuse.

That kind of vigilance remains a good idea, we think, as we consider some of the schemes our Maryland legislators think would make good laws.

For example, our own Anne Arundel Del. David Boschert, R-Crownsville, wants to create the equivalent of a pornography czar, similar to a drug czar. To begin with, it strikes us as more than a little curious that “ombudsman” is the title of the position within the attorney general’s office that his bill would create.

For there’s not much in his HB 22 to suggest the neutrality — the mediator who weighs both sides — that the word “ombudsman” connotes.

Indeed, Delegate Boschert’s ombudsman has a prescribed agenda: “to advise and assist local governments and citizens in curtailing pornography.”

We consider ourselves more than a bit prudish when it comes to pornography. We get outraged at stuff popping into prime-time television and at some of the twistedly creative e-mail offers that bombard us. We don’t like violating children or abusing women. And we avoid watching all the movies or television shows and reading all the thrillers that chronicle such abuses.

But we believe that making laws dealing with perceptions of what’s pornographic or obscene is a slippery slope. Obscenity may be defined in Maryland criminal law. But that doesn’t mean that supermarket magazines (Cosmopolitan was among those cited by the bill’s backers) or movies or e-mail we or you or the Taliban don’t like is obscene.

Pornography’s a dirty word, the kind it’s easy to rally against. We might be tempted, were we not committed by our Constitution to defend the right of Americans to tastes and opinions that aren’t our own.

Our own United States Supreme Court put it this way: “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” In other words, adults should have the right to see and read what they want, within very broad legal limits.

Our main concern is that in the confusion over what is obscene, a porno czar pressured by community groups would overreach. We can envision anti-porno zeal applied to the magazine racks at checkout counters or to a host of classics at the public library.

And what about anti-AIDS education? We know of people who label as pornography the efforts to protect people at risk.

The Supreme Court, like it or not, is our best arbiter in these matters. General Assemblies usually blunder when entering the realm of morals.

Nearly 50 years ago, the Court concluded that an effort in Michigan to criminalize books that some people believed corrupted “the morals of youth” was unconstitutional. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote famously that government cannot pass laws that “reduce the adult population of Michigan to reading only what is fit for children.” Think about it.

Nor has Congress fared well. We recall what happened when Congress made its first attempt to regulate Internet pornography. The Court threw out key provisions of the Communications Decency Act that banned on-line dissemination of “indecent” and “patently offensive” expression.

In the coming months, we would add, the Court will review another work of Congress called the Child On-line Protection Act. This law may be upheld because it is drawn more narrowly.

In short, we already have time-tested mechanisms to deal with pornography. Adding a $143,000 office in the state of Maryland should not be a new one.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly