“Bare it or Bar it?” Should the Government Regulate Adult Pornography? A Debate

By Elizabeth O’Brien

SELINSGROVE, PA, August 1, 2007 ( - In a passionate debate earlier this year, two specialists discussed whether the government should be able to regulate adult pornography or whether the issue should be left entirely as a personal matter, determined only by subjective choice.

The Susquehanna University’s Arlin M. Adams Center for Law and Society, a society that discusses the role of law in private and public life, hosted the lecture and debate this March, entitled "Bare It or Bar It: Should Government Regulate Adult Pornography To Prevent Exposure To Minors?" The keynote speakers were Professor Nadine Strossen, President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Mr. Michael Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF).

Michael Johnson, who has helped dozens of city governments draft restrictions for Sexually Oriented Businesses (SOB’s), began by pointing out the massive harm caused by the $13 billion dollar pornography industry. In a case in the late 70’s, for example, a study of the City of Detroit found that in some cases the rates of crime, sexual abuse and molestation were 400 to 500% higher in areas where pornography and sex shops proliferated than in other parts of the city. Many other cities and towns have reported similar results.

Johnson also cited cases in which adult pornography was a cause of grievous harm to children. In a certain study of 43 pedophiles, for example, every single one exposed the victim to adult or child pornography in order to lower the child’s inhibitions.

He stated, "Pornography is a major contributor and facilitator in the development of the sexual addiction and depravity, such as child molestation, and exhibitionism, and voyeurism, sadomasochism, fetishism, and rape and all the other perversions. And yet so called soft porn, we know it’s harmful. It can be a gateway to harder material and the societal ills that it brings, and yet it’s protected."

Many people argue that the First Amendment should protect an adult’s right to pornography. Johnson explained, however, that the First does not apply if something is considered obscene.

  Nadine Strossen, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of personal and parental responsibility when it comes to adult pornography. Her central argument was that "in our wonderfully diverse society we all have widely divergent ideas, values, and taste."

She continued, "Those divergent values certainly and especially extend to matters about sexual expression, what we find positive, what we find negative for ourselves and for our children. Therefore, we can’t responsibly delegate these inherently personal choices to anyone else, neither government officials nor our fellow citizens."

According to Strossen, the courts can’t objectively define obscenity because everyone sees the world subjectively. By giving the government more censorship power, people are opening up the door to erratic and inconsistent rulings on what is considered indecent.

She mentions many court decisions which ruled that the constitutional rights of adults to pornography cannot be contravened in order to protect minors. As one example she quotes the Supreme Court stating, "The level of discourse reaching a mailbox cannot be limited to that which would be suitable for a sandbox." She also believes that people should spend more energy tracking and enforcing already existing laws against pedophiles than on cracking down on something that is for adults.

Quoting certain child safety organizations that oppose censorship, she stated, "We cannot put them (children) in a bubble and say, ‘You are never going to see anything that will disturb you.’ Some people will be disturbed by sexual images. Some will be disturbed by violent images. I am in that category. Some are disturbed by discriminatory images. Some are disturbed by antireligious images. We all have very different values."

"But the answer to speech that some of us may find harmful to ourselves or to our children is not to get rid of it, not to regulate it. If we went down that road, there would be no free speech at all."

Johnson agreed that the responsibility should be on the parents. Nevertheless, he vehemently disagreed with the basis of Strossen’s argument. He stated, "The problem is the basis and premise on which she brings the argument is moral relativism and it’s the idea that there is no moral absolute. There is no right or wrong. She ably described it, ‘all of us might define it differently.’

Appealing to the objectivity of moral conscience, he cited a 2006 Morality in Media poll that found that 73% of US adults know that viewing pornography online is morally unacceptable. On the grounds of natural law, therefore, he rejected her arguments.

Read full lecture and debate:

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