Should Obscenity Be Illegal?

| by Reason Foundation

Porn producer John Stagliano faces up to 32 years in federal prison for distributing the adult films Milk Nymphos and Storm Squirters 2: Target Practice and a promo reel for similar material via his website for Evil Angel Productions (adults only). (Full disclosure: Stagliano is a donor to Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.)

As Stagliano gears up for a court case due to begin this July in Washington, D.C., it's worth asking whether obscenity prosecutions make any sense, especially when dealing with material created and consumed by consenting adults in private. The definition of obscenity is notoriously slippery—works as varied (and sexually inoffensive) as Lady Chatterley's Lover, Ulysses, and I Am Curious Yellow have all been deemed obscene—and its prosecution is famously subjective and selective.

Material is considered obscene only when a jury finds it to be so; the same book, movie, or song can be illegal in one region and totally fine in another. As Stagliano, whose website followed all legal restrictions imposed by federal mandates, notes, "I didn't know I was breaking the law."

Despite the liberating technology of the Internet, free expression remains under attack by religous zealots who threaten death to blasphemers and government regulators who threaten jail time. The prosecution of porn is "another area where the government thinks it should be able to run our lives," says Stagliano. "They could easily extend that from looking at porn to consuming fast food" and other activities.

"Should Obscenity be Illegal?" is produced by Dan Hayes and Nick Gillespie, who also hosts. Approximately 6.15 minutes.