Who's Watching Big Brother?
by Liz Highleyman
In this issue:
U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith ruled in April that Alabama's ban on sex toys (see Anything That Moves #18) was "overly broad" and bears "no rational relation to a legitimate state interest." The 1998 law made the sale or distribution of "any obscene material or any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs" a misdemeanor punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
Six women who either sell sex toys or deem them necessary for sexual satisfaction challenged the law on privacy grounds; however, Judge Smith did not uphold this argument, saying "this court refuses to extend the fundamental right of privacy to protect plaintiffs' interest" in using sex toys. Nevertheless, sex toy store proprietor Sherri Williams was pleased with the ruling, stating, "We succeeded in kicking the government out of our bedroom."
This February, a Louisiana state appeals court struck down that state's sodomy law, which made it a felony to have oral or anal sex, regardless of the sex of the participants. The so-called "crime against nature" statute dated back to 1805. The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the government has no business regulating the private sex lives of consenting adults.
Eleven states still have broad sodomy laws on their books; six others ban only same-sex sodomy.
The American Medical Association in January fired the editor of its prestigious journal after the magazine published an article about college students' attitudes about oral sex. JAMA editor Dr. George Lundberg was dismissed after the appearance of a report by Dr. June Reinisch, the retired director of the Kinsey Institute, which found that 59% of college students do not believe that oral sex constitutes "having sex." The article appeared during the heat of the Clinton impeachment trial, during which Clinton presented a similar rationale to explain his prior statements that he had not "had sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky. Because of the timing of the article, which reported on research conducted in 1991, AMA Executive Vice President Sr. Ratcliffe Anderson accused Lundberg of focusing on "sensationalism, not science." Lundberg has since taken a position as editor of Medscape, a major medical Web site.
On July 7, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Rudolph Loncke dismissed all charges against award-winning gay journalist Bruce Mirken. Mirken faced charges of attempted lewd acts with a minor, which arose from an Internet sting in which an undercover police detective posed as an underage teenage boy in an America Online (AOL) chat room. Mirken, who writes frequently about issues affecting queer youth, conversed with and met the "boy" in a public park to gather material for a future story.
In May, Mirken was found not guilty of child pornography possession charges related to unsolicited and immediately deleted images from the Internet that were found when his computer was seized in connection with the same case. After the prosecution presented its case, Judge Loncke ruled that it had not produced enough evidence to proceed. Although Mirken was relieved, he was also disappointed that he had not been able to present more information about the issues facing gay teens.
According to Mirken, "I know there are kids out there today putting out pleas for help," and there are gay adults who will not help them out of fear of facing similar accusations. "Some kid out there is going to die because no one will help him because they are afraid it's a trick," Mirken said.
A statue entitled "Bacchante and Infant Faun" was returned to its intended place in Boston this spring after having been banned for a century. The statue was to be installed in the courtyard of the newly renovated Boston Public Library, the nation's oldest. Although the infant in the statue is nude, the work was originally banned because it features a woman holding a bunch of grapes, which temperance movement activists in the late 1800s interpreted as encouraging alcohol consumption. The statue was branded "a monument to inebriety," and the Rev. James B. Brady -- a precursor to the extremely homophobic televangelist Jerry Falwell -- attacked the statue as a representation of "the worst type of harlotry with which the earth was ever afflicted." The statue was created by Frederic Macmonnies, and was donated to New York's Metropolitan Museum after the outcry. The Boston Public Library commissioned a copy in 1993.
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) appealed a lower court ruling that halted the enforcement of the Children's Online Protection Act (COPA). The DoJ asked a federal court to set aside the Feb. 1 injunction by District Judge Lowell Reed blocking enforcement of the law. A three-judge Court of Appeals panel will hear the case later this year. The COPA, which resembles the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), seeks to bar Web sites from publishing material that is deemed "harmful to minors" unless they can verify users' ages, a procedure opponents claim is prohibitively difficult and expensive. Sixteen organizations, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the COPA on First Amendment grounds (see Anything That Moves #19).
In February, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ernest Hollings (D-SC) introduced the Children's Internet Protection Act, legislation intended to require schools and libraries with federally-subsidized Internet access to install filtering software. The Senate Commerce Committee approved the measure in late June, and the House of Representatives passed a related proposal as part of its juvenile justice bill. Critics of the legislation claim that it is yet another attempt to impose illegal restrictions on free speech, similar to the 1996 CDA, which a federal court ruled unconstitutional. The ACLU and the American Library Association contend that the measure could lead to the blocking of sites that contain useful and appropriate material, such as health information and resources for queer youth.
In the wake of the April shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, parents and politicians are desperately searching for someone to blame. Among the popular targets have been the media, the Internet, and video games. House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL) proposed a law intended to limit youth access to sexually explicit or violent material in movies, books, music, and video games. Hyde said the bill was "designed to slow the flood of toxic waste into kids' minds." The measure failed in June by a House vote of 282-146.
According to Representative Mark Foley (R-FL), the measure "tramples on the First Amendment" and "won't solve the problem." According to the ACLU, which opposed the proposal, "We're really concerned about extending the obscenity exception to violence… [M]useums, libraries, schools, and all sorts of institutions could really be in jeopardy." The Columbine shootings stirred widespread cultural anxiety related to the killers' clothing, computer gaming habits, political beliefs, and purported bisexual orientation.
In February, the Christian Action Network proposed that the Federal Communications Commission add a new "HC" rating to label television programs that contain homosexual content. Currently, voluntary TV ratings exist for shows that contain violence, sex, and adult language. The religious right group is launching its grassroots campaign in response to what it claims are "more than two dozen homosexual characters" on weekly network TV. According to a press release from the group, "Unless these producers are trying to promote a secret agenda, they should have no problem with alerting parents that their programs contain homosexual content." People for the American Way opposed the proposal, saying it was "an obvious attempt to stigmatize an entire group of Americans." Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti called it "an inhumane proposal that should be ignored."
The Oregon-based Nuremberg Files Web site, which featured the names and other identifying information of doctors who perform abortions, was put on trial in January. The lawsuit was brought by Planned Parenthood, several physicians, and a women's clinic against the American Coalition of Life Advocates and Advocates for Life, two anti-abortion groups that sponsored the site. Opponents of the site claim that it promoted violence against doctors who perform abortions and amounts to terrorism, while site defenders claimed that it was protected political speech. The two sides disagreed about whether the Web site and the "Dirty Dozen" series of wanted posters issued by the defendants crossed the line of being direct threats of violence.
In early February, a jury ruled that the site did amount to a threat, and ordered the defendants to pay $107 million in damages. Following the verdict, Mindspring, the site's Internet service provider, withdrew services from the Nuremberg Files, and federal judge Robert Jones ordered the defendants to stop publishing wanted posters or personal information about physicians. In late February, the site was re-posted on a site based in the Netherlands by a woman who says she favors abortion rights but wants to protect free speech. To prevent acts of violence against the listed physicians, she says on her site, she has added the names of several anti-abortion rights activists to the site. Through an appeals process, the case may eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.
In May, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai ordered television producers to stop broadcasting shows that feature transsexual and cross-dressing performers. The Thai government claims that programs that "promote sexual abnormalities" are harmful to children. Senior broadcast official Kulya Boonak said the prime minister received numerous complaints about such programming via his Web site. Dancer Pakorn Pimthon of the Gay Group Against AIDS in Bangkok told the Associated Press that, "Our appearance in television shows and soap operas cannot pose any influence to youth." Although the government's request was presented as a recommendation, it is being taken as an official directive, and TV broadcasters have begun screening scripts.
Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal, which provoked great hilarity last February when it claimed that purple, purse-carrying teletubby Tinky Winky was gay, has now set its sights on the Lilith Fair concert series. The Lilith Fair, which features independent women musicians, takes its name from a figure in ancient Hebrew mythology said to have been Adam's first wife who refused to submit to her husband. Falwell's magazine characterizes Lilith as a demon, and issued a warning to "parents who may not wish their children to participate in a music festival that celebrates a pagan (sic) figure." The journal asserts that according to legend, Lilith went on "a killing spree, seducing and murdering her own demonic male offspring and then slaying their children."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance journalist and health educator. She is associate editor of the anthology Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions (Haworth Press, 1995).
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