Clear56° FULL FORECASTClear56° FULL FORECAST
Make us your home page
Instagram

Porn trial more than a simple smut case

TAMPA — Twelve local residents spent last week doing a dirty job for the rest of us.

Jurors in the federal trial of Paul F. Little, a California man who known by the nom de porn Max Hardcore, watched hours of explicit, violent pornography to determine if, among other things, Little violated community standards.

The case, which continues this week, has captured the attention of groups from New York City to California by raising larger questions about the legal standards for obscenity in an online world.

"It's one of first post-Internet obscenity cases. It could certainly be precedent setting," said Lawrence Walters, an Altamonte Springs lawyer who has handled high-profile obscenity cases.

Since the early 1970s, the legal standard for obscenity has been a three-part test, including whether the average person believes the work violates standards of the community.

Now, some legal experts wonder if it's time for a change.

"The Internet is part of what makes the application of local community standards problematic," said Lyrissa Lidsky, a law professor at the University of Florida. "Once you put it up, it can go into all sorts of different communities."

The current standard stems from a Supreme Court decision in 1973 in the case of Miller vs. California.

In that case, prosecutors accused Marvin Miller of mass mailing advertisements for adult books, including one called Sex Orgies Illustrated. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which developed the three-prong test to determine obscenity.

Internet distribution has also led to discussion about where prosecutors choose to try cases.

"That's the big question with respect to any obscenity case — why are they brought where they're brought," Walters said. "More and more we're seeing the government prosecuting in locations that have nothing to do with their case."

Other times, he said, a particular U.S. Attorney's Office chooses to focus on obscenity cases.

So why Tampa?

Prosecutors declined to say why they chose to try Max Hardcore here. The business and Little both are based in California.

In testimony, a Web site-hosting company manager said he hosted the Max Hardcore site for three years in downtown Tampa.

A postal inspector then testified that she purchased the five DVDs being used at trial by visiting the Max Hardcore site, then had them shipped to a Tampa post office box.

In terms of finding a conservative community sympathetic to prosecutors, Tampa, a city that's home to the Mons Venus strip club and hosts porn movie awards, isn't an obvious choice.

"I've always called it the porn capital of the South," said A.J. Comparetto, a St. Petersburg lawyer who specializes in helping clients create adult Web sites. "They could be sending a signal to producers over there: Don't cross the line, don't even think about doing something like this."

This is hardly the first obscenity trial to puzzle legal experts.

Such cases have a long, often politicized, history.

"It really kind of ebbs and flows with the presidential administrations," Walters said.

Few such trials took place under the Clinton administration. More have taken place during the current Bush administration.

Lawyers have tried to predict which acts are beyond the pale.

To avoid obscenity charges, Comparetto suggests adding humor or satire and plot lines into films, and trying to see it from the perspective of a jury.

"Fringe to me is where you have a lot of bodily fluids," Comparetto said.

Porn producers straddle a line between what is acceptable and what is cutting edge — that is, what will bring them attention and money, he said.

Tampa residents may remember the Tampa Tushy-Fest case in 2002, an obscenity case that involved another California porn maker, Adam Glasser.

Glasser faced obscenity charges for filming sex acts between two women in a Dale Mabry Highway motel room. The charges were dropped.

Walters now represents a woman in what is known as the "Red Rose" case. His client, Karen Fletcher, operated a text-only Web site with graphic stories of sexual violence. She was arrested on obscenity charges.

She has decided to take a plea deal in the case because she is agoraphobic and unable to attend a trial, but Walters called her site tame.

That case illustrates just how difficult it is to predict what types of materials could be viewed as criminal, he said.

"It really is almost an arbitrary crapshoot," he said. "It's the wrong thing to do for the government because it sends the message that it doesn't matter what you produce, we're just going to randomly shoot fish in a barrel."

Obscenity cases inspire strong reactions from both those who oppose and those who support vigorous enforcement of the obscenity laws.

"I'm glad, thankful, whatever the words would be," said Bob Peters of his reaction to the charges against Max Hardcore. Peters is the spokesman for Morality in Media, a New York group that advocates for pornography prosecutions.

"Part of my thinking on why it's important to enforce obscenity laws again is half the battle is to send the message that it's not good for society, it's not appropriate," Peters said.

On the other coast, the Los Angeles Free Speech Coalition argues enforcement of obscenity laws does little good.

"Obscenity is the only offense where you don't know that you have committed a crime until you are convicted," said organization spokeswoman Diane Duke. "What could be found as a crime in Tampa may not be a crime in Fort Lauderdale. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars diverting valuable resources where actual crimes exist, and frankly it's not a priority for the majority of Americans."

Times staff writer Kevin Graham and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or 813-226-3373.

>>FAST FACTS

The obscenity test

The current legal standard to prove obscenity stems from the 1973 case Miller vs. California. The Supreme Court developed a three-prong test to determine if material is obscene:

1. It must appeal to prurient interests. That must be determined by the average person, applying contemporary community standards.

2. It must be patently offensive.

3. It must lack serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.

Porn trial more than a simple smut case 05/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 6:55pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...