Pornographers are bracing for the first major obscenity clampdown in three decades under President Trump’s new pick for attorney general, William Barr, a strident social conservative whose views threaten the lucrative industry.
Anti-porn campaigners were thrilled with Trump's selection of Barr, previously attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, noting his enthusiastic obscenity prosecutions in the early ‘90s.
Pornographers are taking the threat seriously, but argue a crackdown would be hypocritical under the thrice-married Trump. His links to the industry include softcore Playboy cameos, an alleged affair with Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal, an alleged tryst with hardcore star Stormy Daniels and an accusation of assault by adult actress Jessica Drake.
Barr, described by one Washington attorney as a "staunch Catholic conservative," isn't shy about his views, warning in a 1995 article that "secularists" were targeting "laws that reflect traditional moral norms" and that "we are seeing the constant chipping away at laws designed to restrain sexual immorality [and] obscenity."
Federal obscenity law hasn’t changed in decades, leaving a juicy target for Barr, who left office 25 years ago, before the explosion of Internet porn that flourished under three presidents.
Hustler publisher Larry Flynt said Barr “very well could be” a threat. "They can’t keep our streets clean, so they want to keep our minds pure by dictating our reading habits," he said.
Mike Stabile, spokesman for the Free Speech Coalition, a porn industry trade group, said, "We've long worried that Trump's anxiety about his porn connections would cause him to over-correct. After all, what better way to distract evangelicals and anti-porners from your relationship to porn and porn stars than to attack it?”
“But if Trump launches an anti-obscenity campaign, he'll be the Larry Craig of porn,” Stabile said, referring to the former Idaho Republican senator who campaigned for public morality before being arrested for soliciting sex in an airport bathroom.
Porn star Cherie DeVille, who is considering a 2020 presidential campaign, said Trump "also cracked down on immigration and has a wife who is an immigrant, so it would be right on brand for the Trump administration to continue with its hypocrisy." She added: “The irony is that these men themselves are the biggest fanboys."
The porn landscape is dramatically different from the early ‘90s, when it was mostly sold at stores and by mail. Now, it's available for free on three of the top 10 U.S. websites.
“They are a luscious target for prosecution," said Patrick Trueman, who heads the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. "If you take one down, it’s a profitable firm and you are going to get a lot of forfeiture of assets."
"If you began with even just a couple of U.S. attorney offices with the backing of main justice and the attorney general, you would see some major progress," Trueman said.
Campaigners fondly recall Barr’s record, detailed in a 1991 speech by President George H.W. Bush, who praised the "superb job" Barr was doing on pornography.
"We have virtually eliminated that horrible mail order obscenity business. Imagine the indiscriminate mailing of hard core pornography into American homes?" Bush said, during what now seems like a much more innocent age.
For years, Trueman, who was chief of the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section from 1988 to 1993, has sought to get prosecutions resumed. He met with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in August 2017, but Sessions — under attack from Trump — “didn’t make any promises and we didn’t hear from him afterward.”
Trueman is optimistic about a second Barr term as attorney general. “He didn’t take the easy route, which is just to prosecute child pornography,” said Trueman. “I have been in his office one on one [in the '90s] talking about the issue of obscenity, and I can say he was very sincere about it."
Donna Rice Hughes, founder of the group Enough is Enough that campaigns for "making the Internet safer for children and families," expressed "high hopes" for Barr. Hughes, who also met with Sessions, argues that convictions would be easy.
“Jurors look over and think, that’s the guy responsible for my husband walking out on me. Or that’s the one responsible for my 10 year old [viewing porn],” said Hughes, who turned to religion after a dalliance with Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., memorialized in a photo of Hughes in Hart’s lap, dooming his 1988 presidential campaign.
Leaders in Washington matter, Trueman said, recalling Robert Mueller, then head of the Justice Department criminal division, ordering an unwilling U.S. attorney in Houston to prosecute an obscenity case.
Barr could "survey the industry, find the largest companies, and put them on a target list,” Trueman said.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said judges may ultimately side with companies. The Supreme Court since 1969 has protected private possession of obscene pornography, and rulings "largely curtail prosecution for viewing or creating consensual adult pornography," he said.
“Porn sites have more traffic than Netflix, Twitter, and Amazon combined,” Turley added. “Some 35 percent of all downloads are porn related. Porn is now an almost $100 billion industry with some $12 billion coming from the U.S. alone. A crackdown may not be what the Trump administration wants to add to its political agenda."
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said that while porn distribution is very different, "the legal landscape hasn’t materially changed since 1992," Barr’s last full year in office.
“The George W. Bush administration did prosecute some creators of what was seen as unusually offensive porn, so maybe that will return, whether or not it seems to be effective,” Volokh said.
Gay porn producer Michael Lucas expressed concern that "obscenity laws are so vague," with prosecutors having to show material violates subjective “community standards," but held out hope that the Trump administration would not be competent enough to take on filth.
“Obviously it would be a waste of government money, but with this administration, you never know," he said. "On the other hand, if follow through is as inept as it is on other initiatives, we don’t have to be particularly worried."