What turns a person on? Is what arouses one person the same as what arouses every other person? Should it be? According to the current wave of successful obscenity prosecutions by both federal and state governments, the answer is not only a resounding “yes,” but exactly what is permissible under the law is subject to the whim of the FBI, the local and state governments, and a person's neighbor down the street. Video store owner Rick Krial was recently convicted in Staunton, Virginia, on one of two misdemeanor charges of obscenity and his store was likewise found guilty on one of two similar charges. He and his store still face trial on sixteen obscenity-related felony charges for selling pornographic DVDs to consenting adults for private viewing in their homes. Mr. Krial applied for and received all the proper business licenses and permits required of him, and the videos were made by legally documented consenting adults.
At the heart of this case and others like it is the legal definition of the word “obscene.” What is truly problematic here is that the definition of the word is as malleable as the sixteenth century definition of the word “blasphemy.” Current obscenity laws are based on a 1973 ruling by the Supreme Court in the case of Miller v. California. From that precedent comes the Miller test, whereby an item is deemed legally obscene (and thus unprotected by the First Amendment) if it meets all three of the following criteria: “a) 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, b) the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and c) the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Each of these three standards is so subjective as to allow them to be brandished like Sixtus IV's pernicious bull of 1477.
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