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In our opinion: Prosecuting obscenity should be a priority

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama has been reluctant to enforce obscenity laws.

Associated Press

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Obscenity convictions have been rare over the past 20 years. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Justice Department began to de-emphasize prosecution of adult pornography under obscenity laws, and that trend has been steady through the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

Now, the Republican Party has included a platform plank that calls for obscenity prosecution once again, and people who understand the scourge pornography presents in modern society are hopeful a Mitt Romney presidency would carry out those wishes.

Prosecutors continue to go after child pornographers, although some critics accuse the Obama administration of being lax on that front, as well. But some recent international efforts have uncovered child porn rings, resulting in mass arrests.

Adult pornography, unfortunately, has over the last two decades gained increased social acceptance. It is available in many hotel rooms and ubiquitous on the Internet. Several years ago, it was estimated to be a $100 billion industry, and that figure has surely increased. It has become conventional wisdom that pornography is somehow protected under the First Amendment, so long as it depicts adults.

That is not necessarily true. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled an explicit depiction could be outlawed as obscene if it "taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value."

That is an admittedly vague, community-based standard. But it has provided a sound basis for putting pornographers in jail. Abundant research over the past 40 years has established the negative effects pornography has on families, marital relations and healthy attitudes about the opposite sex. The persistent viewing of pornography can lead to objectification, desensitization and depression.

Four years ago, the American Psychological Association issued a report titled, "Sexualization of girls," in which it documented evidence as to how the widespread emphasis on physical appearance and sexuality in advertising and other media is linked to mental health problems, low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders among girls. It even is linked to a lower performance in areas such as math and logical thinking.

Pornography adds considerably to this problem, especially as it invades telephones and other mobile devices. Experts say curious children typically become exposed to pornography on the Internet at age 10 or 11.

We join others in hoping that this obscenity prosecution plank will not just rally a Republican base during the election, but might influence any who have a say with regard to enforcing our obscenity laws. We hope the gathering evidence of pornography's harm will create momentum for tougher enforcement regardless of who wins in November.

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