I've been called to testify in a federal trial against a pornographer. Here's why this case really matters
The Department of Justice has booked my plane tickets and hotel room in downtown Los Angeles. Now I just need to buy an actual pair of non-denim pants and I’ll be ready for my subpoenaed testimony this Thursday in a federal obscenity trial.
Seriously, though, for reasons much greater than my own involvement, this is a trial to pay attention to. The pornographer on trial, Ira Isaacs, is indicted for making and selling what’s known colloquially as “poo porn,” and redistributing foreign-made bestiality films, like ”Japanese Doggie 3 Way.” Needless to say, he’s not a porn magnate along the lines of Larry Flynt or Steven Hirsch: The guy is small-time. But he’s at the center of a now-rare obscenity trial, in which prosecutors will argue that the sexually explicit movies that he sold — not all of which he made — are offensive, violate community standards and have no redeeming artistic merit. The charges could put the 61-year-old in jail for the rest of his life.
The case is a leftover from the Bush era. It was filed before Attorney General Eric Holder quietly shuttered the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, which charged a whopping 361 defendants with obscenity under George W. Bush. Nowadays, obscenity cases — including those involving consensual, adult pornography — are handled by the same section of the DOJ that deals with child exploitation. It’s been a slow couple of years on the obscenity front since Obama was elected: No new cases have been brought.
You might think this would mean that the few cases allowed to carry over under Obama would deliver impressive wins, but that’s not the case. In July of 2010, the obscenity trial against pornographer John Stagliano was dismissed because, believe it or not, there was “woefully insufficient” evidence linking the defendants to the content in question. The judge offered an embarrassing reprimand: “I hope the government will learn a lesson from its experience.” Shortly thereafter, in August of the same year, the obscenity case against AdultDVDEmpire.com — for selling four BDSM titles — was settled in a plea bargain, with the defendant claiming that the sales in question were accidents: two-year probation and a $75,000 fine.
And yet conservative Republicans — and a handful of Democrats, too — are angry that more obscenity prosecutions haven’t been brought. Last April, 42 senators signed a letter calling for Holder to “vigorously” bring obscenity cases “against major commercial distributors of hardcore adult pornography” (i.e., those more like Flynt than Isaacs). More recently, after some tireless harassment, Morality in Media got Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to pledge to revive such prosecutions.
The Isaacs trial is another example of the abstract and subjective nature of these cases, which rely on the four-decades-old “Miller test” holding that something is obscene, and worthy of censorship, if it meets three requirements: 1) It “appeals to the prurient interest” based on “contemporary community standards,” 2) depicts sexual conduct in a “patently offensive way” and 3) “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” It also brings another opportunity to consider whether obscenity should continue to be defined by a 40-year-old standard — as well as the prospect of these prosecutions multiplying, and targeting more mainstream pornographers, under a Republican presidency.
So how did I get involved?
The short answer is that I interviewed Ira Isaacs, the pornographer on trial. The longer answer is that last April I published a Q&A in Salon with Isaacs and it included the following exchange:
As far as your upcoming trial, one of your goals is to prove that your videos have artistic merit.
I have to do that to sound not guilty.
The prosecution is presumably interested in this passage, because it’s possible to interpret Isaacs’ response as an admission that he doesn’t actually believe his own defense. (It’s also possible to read the rest of the interview, which includes discussions of James Joyce and Franz Kafka, and come to a very different conclusion.) I’m not a telepath, nor an expert voice analyst, so all I can say is that Isaacs said what I said he said. We offered a sworn affidavit that says as much, but I have nonetheless been “commanded,” as the subpoena puts it, to appear in court.
So, free trip to L.A.! Thanks, taxpayers. Assuming my testimony goes ahead as planned, you can expect to hear more from me about the case from the inside.
UPDATE: I just got word that the government has reversed its decision to compel me to testify.(Glad I didn’t buy those non-denim pants!) I’ll still be following the trial closely, though, so stay tuned.
More Related Stories
- I'm not achieving my dreams!
- The most popular Tumblr porn
- Slave descendants seek equal rights from Cherokee Nation
- Snapchat is secretly storing your photos
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Facebook's hate speech problem
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- When my home was destroyed
- Okla. mother's tearful reunion with her 8-year-old son
- New campaign compares gun control to anti-LGBT discrimination
- Study: Salt Lake City is gay parenting capital of the U.S.
- You are less beautiful than you think
- "Ghetto" tour lets you gawk at New York's poor
- Teen activist to meet with Abercrombie CEO
- Watch: Family emerges from storm shelter after tornado
- Okla. tornado survivor reunited with dog trapped in rubble live on camera
- My miscarriages made me question being pro-choice
- Why I tried to be a punk
- I'm terrified of the cicada onslaught
- Limbaugh: No one willing to impeach the first black president
- SAT's right answers are all wrong
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11