[guest post by JVW]
Over the past week a giant debate has arisen on the right regarding whether or not the government should do more to regulate the spread of pornography here in the U.S. The debate in the most general sense seems to pit the traditionalist wing, at this point largely driven by Catholic polemicists, against the regulation-skeptical libertarian wing. This is not the first time that the right’s disposition towards erotic and explicit content has been debated — many of us remember the Meese Commission during the Reagan Administration — but given the easy access to raunchy materials in the online age and given a President who campaigned on tighter regulation of adult content yet himself has a history of consorting with, as the euphemism goes, “adult stars,” it is probably logical that this debate would rear its head (bad pun, I know) yet again.
Once upon a time, kids had to access adult content by swiping their dad or brother’s girlie magazines or by sneaking into the back room at the newsstand or video store to furtively leer at the X-rated content. Nowadays, of course, children are but a couple of clicks away from, quite literally, tens of millions of images and probably hundreds of thousands of hours of video content that just over a half-century ago would have been considered illegal even for adults to view. No matter what your disposition on what consenting adults ought to be allowed to do, this easy access for minors has to strike one as problematic for a healthy society. On the other hand, this matters really are most properly regulated by parents, not by bureaucrats and courts. It is a conundrum for all of us where supposedly “easy” answers often have potential unintended consequences that need to be considered.
Vox, for as much as we tend to ridicule it here, has a pretty good piece on how and why the right has taken up this debate. Last Friday, four Republican members of Congress sent a letter (embedded at the Vox piece) to Attorney General William Barr asserting that current law allows the Justice Department to prosecute the creators and distributors of pornographic content and calling upon the department to be more active in that regard. The Vox piece also mentions that some anti-pornography groups are arguing for laws that would require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer customers Internet access in which pornographic content is filtered out, require all pornographic websites to use a .xxx domain and have age-verification logins, and to use the legal if malleable definition of “obscenity” to crack-down on sites which produce content that is violent or degrading.
And so what this all boils down to in the end is the question of whether or not pornography is fully protected by the First Amendment. Catholic convert Sohrab Ahmari of The New York Post takes the position that it is not, writing:
Online porn isn’t that bad, the Twitter libertarians insist. Plus, there is no way to restrict access to online porn, and even if there were, such regulation would sound the death knell for our ancient liberties.
[. . .]
Happily, there are perfectly constitutional ways to at least limit access. Reno v. ACLU, the 1997 Supreme Court decision that deregulated Internet smut, was decided on narrow, outdated grounds. Justice John Paul Stevens held that Internet porn doesn’t fall under existing law allowing government regulation, because “the Internet is not as ‘invasive’ as radio and television.”
LOL, as the kids say.
Mr. Ahmari is joined by fellow Catholic Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire in defining the easy accessibility of pornography as a public health problem and calling for more regulation. Also weighing in at the traditionalist Catholic magazine First Things is Josh Hammer who accuses conservatives of going soft:
Once upon a time, opposition to the spread of pornography was a unifying political principle for self-described conservatives. Alas, it seems that in our increasingly liberalized conservative movement, such opposition is no longer unifying.
That the attacks on pornography are coming largely from Catholic intellectuals and journalists is notable. Pope Francis, hardly ever a favorite of traditionalist Catholics, has recently been sounding the alarm about porn’s corruption of the human spirit, and joins in the concern that easy access is harmful to the young. While other conservative religious sects have always taken a negative view of the obvious availability of hyper-sexual materials, Evangelical Christians, to cite but one example, appear to be taking a more front-line and involved approach to fighting its spread into their communities rather than lobbying government for action.
And it is the personal effort to curb one’s own addiction to online porn and prevent one’s children from developing bad habits where the libertarian wing of the right believes that the emphasis ought to be. In a podcast entitled “Are We Really Gonna Have Another War on Porn,” the editors of Reason reject the calls for the government to be more active in combatting porn access. They stipulate that children today do have easy access to adult materials, but reject the claims that violence against women and sex trafficking — which they say is separate from human trafficking — is on the rise. They also note that advocates for a crack-down are using language which criticizes porn as a social evil, suggesting that inevitably there will be attempts to restrict its access to adults. While agreeing that the government should continue to combat sex trafficking, especially where minors are concerned, they accuse the anti-porn strand of conservatism of harboring pro-regulation sympathies similar to those of the Sanders/Warren wing of the Democrat Party.
As for me, while I am generally skeptical of compromise simply for the sake of compromise, I could see a few avenues where we could improve upon the current situation. I like the idea of requiring websites which feature sexual content (and yes, I fully recognize that we are venturing into “eye of the beholder” territory here) to carry a .xxx domain name so that parents, and more helpfully ISPs, can take steps to block them, though I am against the idea of requiring registration to access those sites or requiring ISPs to offer filtered web access options. Obviously we should do everything that is Constitutionally permissible to stop underage kids from being exploited by the adult industry, and there might be some steps that government can take to help prevent young adults, especially in that difficult 18- and 19-year-olds range, from being conned into participating in filming sex acts for money. Beyond those steps, however, I’m not sure that I trust government to determine what constitutes “obscenity,” let alone granting them the power to regulate it.