Political Prurience


The Starr report confronted congressional smut warriors with an inconvenient reality: The prurient is often political.

On September 11, the day Congress released the Starr report, the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection held a hearing on the "Child Online Protection Act." Otherwise known as the second coming of the Communications Decency Act, the act would make it illegal to sell or transfer via the World Wide Web "material that is harmful to minors." Offenders would face criminal fines of up to $50,000 and six months in club fed, in addition to being liable for civil fines.

The hearing's timing raised an interesting issue: If the "Child Online Protection Act" were already law, would the 363 legislators who voted to release the Starr report on the Web face arraignment in federal court?

No, says Peggy Peterson, spokesperson for Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), the bill's sponsor. She says the law would apply only to the private sector. And even private Web outlets operated by publishers such as The Washington Post and REASON would escape prosecution.

While lurid at times, the report isn't "harmful to minors," according to the three-part test Oxley's bill would establish to judge potentially damaging material. It certainly appeals to one's "prurient interest" and describes "perverted sexual acts"–the first two prongs of the harmful-to-minors test. But no one would argue that the report's contents lack "political…value for minors," the third part of the test.

A similar bill championed by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) passed the Senate as an amendment to an appropriations bill. The full House passed the Child Online Protection Act by voice vote October 7.