Friday, December 19, 2008

Fourth Circuit upholds obscenity conviction for private emails

You read that right. In the case of U.S. v. Whorley (PDF), the circuit panel held 2-1 that the obscenity statute applied to Mr. Whorley's private emails to another adult describing fantasies of sexual acts with children, and that this application of the law was constitutional. It did not matter, the courts said, the possessing obscene matter is constitutionally protected; that right does not extend to sharing it through private emails. The Internet is an instrument of commerce, and communications using it are not genuinely private.

It also did not matter, the court said, that the Supreme Court has held the treatment of prose and cartoons as "child pornography" unconstitutional; the same material could still be criminalized as obscenity.

Mr. Whorley is not a sympathetic guy. He has been twice convicted of receiving actual child pornography. But he has also been convicted for the textual descriptions of "obscene" matters in his private emails, as well as receiving "obscene" anime cartoons of minors engaged in sexual behavior. (He's also not a clever guy: he got caught doing it at his job at the Virginia Employment Commission.)

One of the two judges who made this ruling said he "share[d] some disquiet" regarding the email convictions, but that they were proper under governing law. The panel's third judge wrote a long dissent objecting to the email and cartoon convictions. The dissenting judge reasoned that (1) the text conviction violate the First Amendment, and (2) the cartoons were simply not covered by the relevant statute. The portion regarding the emails is worth excerpting at length:
The emails did not include any visual depictions or attachments containing child pornography of any type, and the Government does not allege that Whorley used the e-mails to convince or lure a child into any sexual activity. ....The economic and social justifications for regulating e-mail fantasies — even those involving activities that would be criminal if the fantasies were acted out — are minimal. Indeed, the harm, if any, involved in Whorley’s conduct is not readily discernible because the e-mails were written and exchanged for the sole "enjoyment" of Whorley and his counterpart. Unlike the facts in Ferber, this exchange of information did not have any economic consequences on the child pornography trade and real children were not harmed (or even discussed) during the "production" of these e-mails.

The majority resolves this issue by citing the well-known proposition that words can be obscene. ...However, simply because words can be obscene is not sufficient, on its own, to criminalize pure speech. Incest and sexual relationships between children and adults are distasteful subjects to most individuals, yet writers routinely publish such material....The expert provided the district court with numerous examples of recognized writings involving child sex with adults and/or incest including: Sigmund Freud’s writings on incest and fantasies, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!...

One need not delve into the rare archives of the Library of Congress to find works describing an adult’s sexual fantasies about children. Some of these writings, Lolita for example, are seated at the head table of great literary works of all time. ... The subject of adults fantasizing about having sex with minors, or alternatively, adults actually consummating relationships with children, is not limited to popular literature and academic discourse. A central theme of the Academy Award winner American Beauty is a forty-two year old man’s sexual fantasies about his teenage daughter’s high school classmate....

From my perspective, the iconic books and movies above render unsustainable the claim that writings describing sexual acts between children and adults, generated by fantasy, have no demonstrated socially redeeming artistic value. If the writers of the aforementioned books and movie scripts e-mailed the sections of their work that described the sexual relationship between the minor and the adult to a willing recipient, presumably both the writer and the recipient could have been subject to prosecution for sending or receiving obscene material under § 1462, an untoward result....

Incursions on our citizenry’s right to be free from governmental regulation of speech are viewed with skepticism and scrutiny....Whorley’s e-mails are pure speech at the very heart of the First Amendment....Frankly, I am hard pressed to find a permissible governmental interest that is served in suppressing Whorley’s emails as such an action would not aid in "protect[ing] the victims of child pornography" or the "destr[uction] [of] a market for the exploitative use of children."The most obvious interest the government might have in suppressing such speech — that such fantasies may "whet[ ] the appetites of pedophiles and encourage[ ] them to engage in illegal conduct," has been soundly rejected by the Supreme Court.

Today, under the guise of suppressing obscenity — whatever meaning that term may encompass — we have provided the government with the power to roll back our previously inviolable right to use our imaginations to create fantasies. It is precisely this unencumbered ability to fantasize that has allowed this nation to reap the benefits of great literary insight and scientific invention. The Constitution’s inviolable promise to us is its guarantee to defend thought, imagination and fantasy from unlawful governmental interference regardless of whether such thoughts, imaginings, or fantasies are popular with the masses. It is in these moments that our grip on the rule of law and our fidelity to constitutional values is tested.
The dissenting judge also had some things to say about the Supreme Court's obscenity doctrine in general, which deserve their own post.

In my lifetime, prosecutions for obscenity based purely on text are rare. The only other case I know of regarded much media comment and resulted in a guilty plea.

H/t to How Appealing and the Volokh Conspiracy.

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