A little-known government body—the California Senate Committee on Public Safety— got it right twice last week. They actually enhanced the safety of Californians by defeating two bills that had sailed through the state Assembly without a single dissent.
The first, AB1067, required “blinders” on store displays featuring magazines with “harmful matter” on the cover. The second, AB1475, mandated computer repair technicians to report “pornographic images of children” they find while fixing a machine.
Both are examples of good intentions (protecting young people from inappropriate sexual experiences) mixed with hysteria (the belief that those potential experiences are terribly common, and always profoundly harmful), yielding laws that compromise the rights of all adults and children, and undermine our democratic system of free expression and innocent-until-proven-guilty.
What is “harmful matter” on a magazine cover–an exposed breast? Britney Spears’ crotch flash? The Abu Ghraib photos? And what age are we protecting—six? Sixteen? Is there ANY sexual imagery that is NOT “harmful matter?” And who makes the decision—the store owner? Store manager? Twenty-year-old clerk? The local abstinence-until-marriage bluenose? A store wouldn’t know it had broken the law until it was busted, which is the essence of totalitarianism.
This is the kind of law that encourages self-censorship; i.e., it’s too much hassle to deal with, and too dangerous to risk crossing some undefined line, so any sensible store would simple discontinue carrying anything that MIGHT be illegal. This would continue shrinking Americans’ access to legal material, simply because it conveys messages connected with sexuality.
The law requiring that computer technicians report anything resembling child porn is even more dangerous. The law does NOT require techs to get any training in what is and isn’t legal. But facing possible fines and imprisonment, they will obviously err on the side of extreme caution, rather than endanger themselves through inaction. We will inevitably see allegations of child pornography brought against innocent people. No one ever recovers from this horrifying experience.
The bill’s sponsor, Cathleen Gagliani, naively said the definition of child pornography is unambiguous: “The kids either have their clothes on, [or] they have their clothes off.”
Tell that to the dozens of American parents and grandparents languishing in jail, or deprived of their kids, simply because some untrained photo developing clerk decided that a bearskin rug or bathtub photo was pornographic. Tell that to the dozens of Americans languishing in jail because some computer tech or local D.A. decided that they didn’t have the right to photograph themselves having sex. Tell that to the thousands of people deprived of custody of their kids because some judge decided the sexy photos of themselves posted on some website were perverse or disgusting.
Sexual exploitation ruins the lives of many kids every year. Hysteria about the sexual exploitation of kids is destroying American democracy. And that’s bad for EVERY kid.