Porn Over National Security, Vice Squad Overreach, and Censorship in the Courtroom

More dispatches from the John Stagliano obscenity trial

(Editor's Note: Richard Abowitz is covering John Stagliano's obscenity trial in Washington, D.C. for Reason. Follow Abowitz on Twitter for breaking news, and keep up to date with Reason's Stagliano coverage at this link.)

From National Security to Porn Prosecution

The first day of testimony in the John Stagliano obscenity trial quickly made clear that the U.S. government intends to transform jurors into movie critics.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Bonnie Hannan declared that "This case is about crossing the line." What's an example of Hannan's crossed line? "Frequent use of close-up shots of sex." So, would a tracking shot be okay?

The riddle over how this case wound up in Judge Richard Leon's Federal District courtroom in 2010 also became clearer with the testimony of the first witness, FBI Special Agent Daniel Bradley. After originally working on national security issues, Bradley testified, he was transferred to the obscenity desk and assigned to an already open investigation into Stagliano. How's that for government priorities?

The prosecution revealed that the case began when the Los Angeles Police Department Vice Squad sent themselves to the porn industry's biggest annual convention, Adult Entertainment Expo, in my home town of Las Vegas in 2007. Left unaddressed was why California law enforcement was working so far outside its jurisdiction, particularly given that Southern California is the production center of the porn industry. Similarly revealing was that after deciding to target Stagliano, whose residence and business do fall in L.A. County, Los Angeles police chose not to investigate him, and instead contacted the FBI's obscenity crew to step in. 

Defense attorney Paul Cambria in his opening statement suggested an explanation. The movies in question, he noted, "do not contain illegal sex acts." There were no depictions of force or violence. Every participant was a consenting adult. In other words, since Stagliano was not violating any California laws, the local vice squad, rather than respect his right to keep working legally, chose to punish him by tipping off the feds.

That contact was the catalyst that ultimately lead Special Agent Bradley to go "undercover" to order Milk Nymphos and Storm Squirters 2 from Stagliano's distribution company so that the DVDs would cross state lines (from Maryland to D.C.) and therefore enter the FBI's jurisdiction. Now, three years later, the government is offering arguments about the director's choice of close-up shots as evidence of a crime.

More Censorship in the Courtroom

Judge Leon's restrictions on the public's ability to know what is transpiring in his courtroom continues apace. Of course, it is not supposed to be his courtroom at all, only where he acts as a steward for democracy by assuring a fair and open trial. On both these counts, Judge Leon is an embarrassment to watch.

The crucial jury questionnaire, which would allow reporters to assess whether the pool has been skewed in any particular direction, remains hidden from the public.

And yesterday, Judge Leon issued a ruling that, according to longtime legal correspondent Mark Kernes of the respected adult industry trade magazine AVN, could "set First Amendment jurisprudence back at least a half-century."

In the ruling, Judge Leon declared that the movies under dispute do not need to be shown in full at trial. This is a serious problem, because the three prongs of the Miller test, which is the backbone of jury instruction under current obscenity law, explicitly require that jurors evaluate and make decisions on a wide range of issues (including artistic intention and merit), which can only be determined by viewing films in their entirety.

The judge had previously indicated he was going to make this ruling, so there was no shock in the courtroom. But perhaps even worse than the precedent-shattering ruling was the way Judge Leon presented the decision. As Kernes writes: "Sadly, the judge recited his ruling quickly, and there is currently no written copy of it available to the press." Once again, Judge Leon has deprived the media and public of crucial information for evaluating the fairness and openness of this trial.

There have already been plenty other examples. The video monitors are not arranged to allow for sightlines for observers. In fact, only one monitor can be seen at all, with some difficulty, from the public seating section, and it is the one placed farthest away from those seats.

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  • RM||

    I'm not familiar with regular court proceedings, but this seems a little over the top. Maybe the Judge has repressed feelings about the subject?

  • LarryA||

    His feelings aren't repressed at all.

  • ||

    In the ruling, Judge Leon declared that the movies under dispute do not need to be shown in full at trial.

    If I was going to sabotage a conviction so that it would be overturned on appeal, this would be exactly what I would do.

  • Almanian||

    Excellent point, RC

  • ||

    Couldn't he just throw the case out as a waste of time and taxpayer dollars?

  • Virginia||

    At his church he probably hears how he's the champion of children and law-abiding families.

    Power corrupts. Judges are fallible, same as pornographers.

  • kinnath||

    In the 1973 case Miller v. California, the Supreme Court set forth a three-part definition of obscenity:

    1. The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.

    2. The work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law.

    3. The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

    So how does the jury evaluate "the work, taken as a whole" if they don't view "the work, taken as a whole"?

  • LarryA||

    "This stuff is so bad we can't show it in the courtroom" should tell the jury all it needs to know. :-P

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    How can you judge whether Storm Squirters 2 has artistic value if you haven't seen Storm Squirters 1? There could be all kinds of nuances you're missing.

  • ||

    So true. And sequels are never as good as the original. Except for Army of Darkness which was way better than Evil Dead II.

  • ||

    Groovy.

  • Lowdog||

    So are you saying that the judge doesn't see merit in the prosecution's case either, but is too spineless to just throw it out, and is hoping that the appeal courts will rectify the situation later? Cuz that's totally wrong, too, not to mention would most likely cost the defendant tons of money, which could also ruin the man.

    Either way, this is sickening to me, all the more so because it's Mr Stagliano, a friend of Reason and porn.

  • ||

    In her opening statement, prosecutor Bonnie Hannan declared that "This case is about crossing the line." What's an example of Hannan's crossed line? "Frequent use of close-up shots of sex."

    I take it this woman hasn't seen very meny porn flicks. >90% of them incorporate "Frequent use of close-up shots of sex".

    Or so I've been told. :-0

  • DADIODADDY||

    eeny meny?

  • ||

    Yeah, have they never heard of P.O.V.?

    From the titles of the videos I gather that the material may be more obscene than what I'm into....but I made the rational choice to simply not watch what I don't like instead of crusading to protect society from itself.

  • ||

    I'm with you, Dingle... I've always believed that one of the most significant quality common to nearly all libertarians is the ability to see things from another's point of view. I may not be into the whole lactation thing (at least not since I graduated from diapers to Underoos) but it seems just as ridiculous for me to support banning them because I'm not into it as it would be for Stagliano to support banning NON-lactation porn because it's too boring for his taste.

  • People for Ethical Analingus||

    But what if masturbation is a sin against God, and you cannot control your masturbation? You wouldn't do it if pornography weren't readily available would you?

    Pornography must be banned, and no one must ever know about your humiliating and degrading sins against God. You can redeem yourself through your crusade against porn.

  • OO====D||

    "You wouldn't do it if pornography weren't readily available would you?"

    Guess I'd have to go raping. Now what kind of situation would make that option more accessable?

    hmmm...

    I know! A war! I'll just have to start a war. This is gonna be great!

  • Byron||

    From the titles of the videos I gather that the material may be more obscene than what I'm into....but I made the rational choice to simply not watch what I don't like instead of crusading to protect society from itself.


    I don't see why you would call it more obscene. This seems to fall into the 'crossing the line' trap. I would find it more accurate to call it different obscene. I don't see how you can say with a straight face that Stagliano's 'titles' indicate his videos are any 'more obscene' than other porn including ATM, facials, DP, group scenes, BDSM, gay/lesbian, etc.

  • NeonCat||

    Maybe Hannan prefers the many fine pornographic films made before D.W. Griffith popularized the close up in 1915. And they're silent, so the judge won't have to worry about any moaning.

  • Almanian||

    So much for "public trial". Unbelievable, the steps that Judge Shithead has taken to limit the evidence from being seen by the public.

    This entire travesty disgusts me, from the fact that it's occurring at all to the way it's being conducted. Awful and frightening.

  • Daze||

    One point worth clarifying -- John Stagliano was not actually the director of either Milk Nymphos or Storm Squirters 2. He just owns the company that produced them.

  • ||

    So why isn't the director, cameraman, etc on trial?

    Smacks of selective prosecution.

  • WTF||

    So he's allowing the jury to see and hear the key bits of these hard core porn movies. Which makes me wonder - would a juror jacking off in the jury box be cause for a mistrial?

  • Virginia||

    From Abowitz' Twitter account:

    As I expected the prosecution chose to show the mostly minority jury the moment in the film where a white actress repeatedly uses N. word

  • ||

    Oh my god, the courts have descended (or ascended?) to the level of "The Onion".
    http://www.theonion.com/video/.....eer,14174/

  • ||

    I find the Miller test itself to be patently absurd. What "community" should the juror imagine himself in? The online communities he may participate in? His local community of anything from BDSM enthusiasts to church groups? This magical thing called "global community" we hear so much about?

    Oh, so you can't define obscenity? Then don't fucking prosecute it.

  • ||

    Why not define "community" as the Hit & Run board?

  • ||

    There'd be a whole lotta blasphemin', Sasquatch rapin', lobster kissin' fun, is why not.

    (I was exiled in the Canadian wilderness last weekend, and drove past a super sketchy looking biker bar called the Sasquatch Inn. I would have stopped to take a picture if I didn't fear for my bodily integrity.)

  • ||

    Whoa, I Googled and found it. GRRRR STEVE SMITH RAPE GRANDMOTHERS.

  • ||

  • ||

    Don't forget the sodomy, Dagny.

  • ||

    The internet site shows kindly old grandmas, and it says family fun! (maybe they mean Manson family fun, and storm squirting grandmas!)

  • OO====D||

  • Irresponsible Hater||

    Nice.

  • People for Ethical Analingus||

    FYI and a bit OT.

    Pro Dominas of my acquaintance assure me that motorcycle cops love forced femme.

    What are the sexual preferences of the LA cops? What type of porn do they like? Are we to believe they've never been in a titty bar? In LA?

    Exactly how many Americans have viewed porn?

  • OO====D||

    All but three.

  • ||

    This is a serious problem, because the three prongs of the Miller test, which is the backbone of jury instruction under current obscenity law, explicitly require that jurors evaluate and make decisions on a wide range of issues (including artistic intention and merit), which can only be determined by viewing films in their entirety.

    Yeah, now they'll never know if he fixes the cable...

  • People for Ethical Analingus||

    Don't be fatuous Jeffrey!

  • ||

    I honestly do not know of anyone who has viewed porn when they did not want to. We humans have this innate ability to do things like walk away, close our eyes, cover our ears....not type in URL's for porn sites. I have even seen people that were able to click the red X in top right corner of computer screen....once I saw someone hit the off button on a remote control. And this one....maybe its urban legend....but there was a guy that walked into an adult novelty shop and walked out with no gonzo-porn DVD's - actually no DVD's at all. What strength...yep, it must be urban legend. Maybe Superman?

  • People for Ethical Analingus||

    Oscar Wilde once quipped that, "The only way to resist temptation, is to yield to it."

    Was he suggesting you might get bored with something if you tried it?

    But then he was one of them homasexshuls.

  • Dem Sen. Candidate Alvin Green||

    "I honestly do not know of anyone who has viewed porn when they did not want to."

    I do!

  • In Time Of War||

    Exactly. I've never seen the movies in question because that ain't my thing. I refused to watch that "2 girls 1 cup" video, because it ain't my thing.
    People do have control over what they choose to watch, and don't give me any "it's fer teh chiltren!" crap. If you don't want your children to see it, don't invite your sleazy brother-in-law to spend the night.

  • The Gobbler||

    I, for one, don't believe that's real shit. In all likelyhood, the girl was given an enema and than had thick, chocolate frosting forced into her ass with a piping bag.

    I have seen the clip and really think this.

  • ||

    Hmmm -- now that you mention it, you're probably right.

  • CynicinLondon||

    Yeah, sure because chocolate frosting out the ass is A-OK.

    Then again, I suppose it's not that much more than analingus.

  • seanrude||

    They should have filmed the enema and the chocolate frosting being inserted into her ass, because you know damned well there is a market for that.

    What are the chances they used a pastry bag to get the frosting up in there?

  • Cyto||

    The normal course for a trial is to ensure that you have an unbiased jury. There are all kinds of rules about what evidence they will see, and what form that will take, all designed to ensure that they can fairly judge the case before them.

    Then we have this judge implicitly telling them that the material is in fact obscene; by having them listen over private headphones and only watching snippets of the movie. He's clearly sending a message that "this movie is entirely too obscene to be heard by the public" when he states that he will not allow the audio to be heard for fear of harming the dignity of the proceedings.

  • ||

    Exactly. I've never seen the movies in question because that ain't my thing. I refused to watch that "2 girls 1 cup" video, because it ain't my thing.

    I'm more of a tub girl and goatse fan myself

  • Pip||

    About 15 years ago, when the Internet first came out, I would look for site with women peeing. I thought it was extremely hot. But now, meh.

  • ||

    Excellent point by Cyto @2:26 pm.

    This case has "remanded for new trial" tattooed on its ass.

    And not because the judge is a secret libertarian trying to sabotage the prosecution. This judge shows every sign of being a fucking idiot who isn't going to let overseeing a fair trial interfere with acting out his deep-seated psychological problems.

  • Jim||

    Someone ought to organize a public (18+ only) screening of Milk Nymphos here in DC so everyone who cares about the 1st Amendment (inlcuding all the blue haired libertarian old ladies) can go watch it as an act of civil disobedience.

  • Tim||

    Stagliano should take the stand and blow milk out of his ass.

    "Your Honor the Defense rests."

  • ||

    "That contact was the catalyst that ultimately lead Special Agent Bradley to go "undercover" to order Milk Nymphos and Storm Squirters 2..."

    Undercover????
    Was Bradley ever asked at the movie, to prove his bonifieds???
    Director "We gotta make sure your not a snitch"
    Bradley, "I'm lactose intolerant!!!"
    Director "Don't worry your pretty little rosebud...Whoa dude - that is a full fledged blossom! You have done this before!"

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=well used anus&page=2

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