By Julia Scheeres
Wired, December 12, 2001
A national organization that promotes sexual tolerance and an artist who photographs pictures of couples engaged in sadomasochism filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to overturn Internet obscenity laws.
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and photographer Barbara Nitke argue that the obscenity provision of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is so broad that it violates free speech.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, names as plaintiffs Attorney General John Ashcroft and the U.S. government, and aims to blot out the remaining censorship provisions of the CDA, a measure passed to protect minors from online pornography. Violators of the act face fines of up to $250,000 and two years in prison.
The CDA was first attacked in the 1997 case Reno v. ACLU, when the Supreme Court struck down provisions related to indecency, ruling that the law harmed constitutionally protected free speech.
The act's obscenity provisions are targeted by the new challenge.
The murky semantics of the terms "obscenity" and "indecency" have long been the bane of First Amendment lawyers. (For the ACLU's take on the debate, click here).
The CDA defined indecent material as "any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs." The Supreme Court ruled in the Reno v. ACLU case that this broad definition unfairly criminalized speech about a variety of benign topics related to sexual health, such as contraception.
The Supreme Court ruled that obscene speech -- which is not protected by the First Amendment -- must meet the following three criteria: 1) it must be prurient in nature, 2) it must be completely devoid of scientific, political, educational or social value, and 3) it must violate local community standards.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday claims that the obscenity provision outlined in Section 502 of the CDA is so vague and arbitrary that it could violate speech that should be protected.
The sticky words here are the so-called "local community standards," said John F. Wirenius, the plaintiffs' legal counsel and an attorney for civil rights firm Leeds, Morelli & Brown.
"Obscenity is unprotected speech, but not all material is obscene from jurisdiction to jurisdiction," said Wirenius. "Material may be considered obscene in Utah, for example, but not in New York. Whose standards are supposed to be applied to the Internet?"
His clients fear that their content will be judged by the most conservative standards, making them vulnerable to obscenity charges.
"Most people don't realize that one of the most strident censorship provisions of the CDA is still in place," said Susan Wright, spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. "The CDA is still having a chilling effect on Americans who operate websites -- they either have to resort to self-censorship or risk prosecution."
Wright, who said her coalition has 10,000 members from alternative sexual groups, insisted the material produced by her organization was not obscene but that it could be considered so in certain Bible-banging realms of the country.
Plaintiff Barbara Nitke said the Internet is one of the few places where she can exhibit her controversial photographs and worried that this venue might soon be closed to her.
"I strongly believe that people who want to see my work or the type of work I do by other artists should have the right to do so," said Nitke. "But I feel this act will be used against me eventually and that worries me."
But others said the quest to overturn the CDA is a long shot.
Previous First Amendment challenges to obscenity laws have failed in court, said Miriam More, a legal policy analyst for the conservative Family Research Council, which blames pornography for crimes ranging from rape to assault.
Conservative groups such as the FRC do not see the merit of the content produced by sites such as the coalition, and regard their material as porn, plain and simple.
"Obscenity laws should be upheld on the Internet for the same reason they're upheld elsewhere," said More. "When the pornography industry is left unregulated, it keeps pushing to see how far they can go. They never say 'We've done Anal Gangbang One so we don't need to do Farm Gang Bang.'Â The laws need to be enforced."
By David Steinberg
Spectator Magazine, January 11, 2002
"No matter how we're wired to express love, freedom is having the courage to be who we are." - Photographer/plaintiff Barbara Nitke
On December 11, Barbara Nitke and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom brought suit in New York City's Federal District Court, seeking to have the last remaining censorship provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act declared overbroad, vague, and therefore unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The suit, which will be heard this spring by a three-judge panel headed by Judge Richard Berman, is a sequel to the 1997 action by the American Civil Liberties Union, Reno v. ACLU, that resulted in the Supreme Court unanimously striking down the provision of CDA that criminalized indecent, "patently offensive" material broadcast over the Internet. The aim of Nitke v. Ashcroft is to have the ruling extended to CDA's criminalization of obscene material as well.
The Communications Decency Ac was the first Federal statute attempting to regulate sexual material broadcast over the Internet. CDA makes it a Federal crime to transmit any obscene or indecent "comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication" over the Internet, if such material can be viewed by people under 18. The question of what is obscenity or indecency has always been a complex one.
The current Federal definition of obscenity, the Miller test, stems from a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Miller v. California. Under the Miller test, material is legally obscene only if it is sexually explicit, patently offensive according to "local community standards," and lacks any "serious literary, artistic, social, educational, or scientific value. "Sexually explicit material that does have serious social value, but is still offensive according to local community standards, falls into the legal category of indecency, even though it is not obscene. As a result, it can legally be subjected to some degree of government regulation. The supreme Court has ruled, for example, that the times when indecent material can be broadcast on television can be limited to certain late night hours, when it is presumably less likely to be seen by children.
The community standards provision of the Miller ruling allowed the Supreme Court to acknowledge that material considered obscene or indecent in a small town in rural Kansas may nonetheless be quite acceptable in Manhattan or San Francisco, and to avoid imposing one standard on the entire nation. Indeed, courts have ruled that the local community standards that are applied to questions of obscenity and indecency can vary not only city by city and state by state, but even from one city neighborhood to another.
Under Miller, publishers and distributors of erotic and sexual books, magazines, films, and videos have become accustomed to making complicated decisions about where and how they want to market their products. Many mail-order companies choose not to market products in states like Utah and Alabama that they promote extensively in more sexually progressive parts of the country. Other companies choose not to process mail orders from certain states at all. By restricting their marketing, companies are able to choose which local community standards they want to subject themselves to with regard to potential obscenity or indecency charges. Companies also insure themselves against selling to minors by having potential customers certify that they are over 18 years of age.
On the Internet, however, the possibility of all such geographical and age verification vanishes. When a store, publisher, artist, or writer puts erotic and sexual material up on their website, that material immediately becomes available to people from the most progressive to the most conservative communities in the country and, more broadly, in the world. Furthermore, issues of obscenity and indecency on the Internet extend beyond the sale of products to such simple acts as viewing an artist's work, or reading a writer's short stories. Is there an identifiable Internet community whose "local community values" can be used to define which material is legally obscene and which is not? What might that community be?
The Communications Decency Act says nothing about which community's standards of obscenity are to be applied to the Internet. Because it limited itself to issues of indecency in Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court has so far been silent on this issue as well.
Nitke v. Ashcroft seeks to change all that. The complaint claims that, in the absence of a clear definition of which community standards apply to the Internet, CDA has the effect of chilling all Internet expression since questions of the legal obscenity of Internet material might well be judged by the values of the most restrictive communities in the country. This, says John Wirenius, attorney for Nitke and NCSF, makes the obscenity provision of CDA so far-reaching as to be unconstitutional. His hope is that Nitke v. Ashcroft will prompt the Supreme Court to overturn the CAD's obscenity provision, perhaps overturn the CDA entirely, and hopefully define for the first time which community standards are to be used in judging the potential obscenity of online sexual material.
Barbara Nitke is a brilliant, well-known, and widely respected New York fine art photographer. Much of her work comprises powerful, emotionally complex, visually evocative images that depict couples engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities. Many of her images show couples engaged in various forms of consensual sadomasochism. Her photographs are noteworthy both for their exceptional visual beauty and for the depth of the emotional connections she captures in her subjects.
Her website ( http://www.barbaranitke.com/) is the antithesis of the generically garish porn website. It is visually subdued, attractively designed, geared less to selling products (though Nitke's prints are offered for sale) than to providing a showcase for her work.
One image shows a woman looking down tenderly into the eyes of her lover, who lies bound and gagged in her arms. Another shows a woman smilingly listening to instructions from the director on a porn film set, while a man's mouth is hard at work between her thighs. Another shows a woman staring wistfully off into the distance while her woman lover lies helplessly bound and gagged in front of her on the kitchen table. Yet another shows a man concentrating intently as he whips the back of his male lover, who cries out at the pain of the lash.
Other sections of her website provide Nitke with an opportunity to talk about both her work and her personal background. "For many years I shot stills on hardcore porn shoots," she recounts. "I thought it was the most exciting, stomach-turning, heart-warming subject I could ever hope to photograph. I know that sounds crazy. But for me there was a certain feeling of freedom that went with shooting porn which, most of the time, made up for all the other things. [There were moments] when I'd look through the lens into someone's shell-shocked eyes and see a forgotten part of me staring back. That was the shot I wanted for me."
Speaking of her s/m photography, Nitke notes that her goal there is "to capture the bond between [the lovers], and also the intense energy of ritual, passionate s/m. I [want] to photograph deep intimacy and trust, the two main concepts which underlie most s/m practices."
When John Wirenius approached her about being the plaintiff in this lawsuit, Nitke says she knew immediately that she wanted to be part of the effort. "I told John I wanted to sleep on it, but I knew right away that I would do it, which was what I told him the next day." Although she has supported various freedom of expression issues in the past and has been a member of NCSF since the organization was founded, Nitke has never thought of herself as a political activist, not even with regard to free speech issues.
"But you end up being an activist even if you don't want to be," she says pointedly. "If artists as a group don't stand up and do something, the censors are just going to keep going further and further. Most artists don't want to deal with this sort of thing, but we have to."
She recalls a time of showing her work to a gathering of curators and gallery owners in Portland, Oregon, all of whom told her that her photography was excellent, but also said there was no way they could show it, given the current political climate regarding sexual imagery. It was experiences like these, Nitke says, that made her conscious of how impossible it was becoming to show important, sexually controversial work throughout the country.
It wasn't until Nitke decided to put together her own website that she fully realized how heavily the prevailing political climate was weighing on her. Nervous about recent legislation like the Community Decency Act, she called other photographers who were doing erotic and sexual work like hers -- images that were controversial, sometimes sexually explicit, but distinctly artful in intent and style, and distinctly outside the realm of commercial pornography. She also spoke with publishers of erotic magazines equally distant from the production and distribution networks of the porn world. Were these people worried about Ashcroft and how he would apply the laws that Congress was passing related to supposedly obscene material? Did she need to be concerned about being a target for prosecution herself? What kinds of images could she put on her website without risking embroiling herself in legal defenses that could eat up tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention months of time and heartache? And wasn't it horrible that, as a serious artist interested in sexual issues, she had to be distracted by these sorts of issues at all?
"That's why this suit is so important to me," she summarizes. "It's both a practical matter and a matter or principle."
Unlike Barbara Nitke, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom ( https://ncsfreedom.org/) came to Nitke v. Ashcroft directly from an interest in political advocacy of the sexual civil rights of people who find themselves outside the American sexual mainstream. Founded in 1997 "to help change antiquated and unfair sex laws, and to protect free speech and advance privacy rights," NCSF has drawn its primary support from a broad group of S/M activists, initially in New York, but later from other parts of the country as well. It's 21 voting member groups now span the country from New York to Las Vegas, from Greensboro, North Carolina to Blue Island, Illinois. The groups range from long-standing s/m advocacy and support groups, like the Eulenspeigel Society of New York, to newer groups like St. Louis's Leather and Lace, and Cincinnati's Masters and slaves Together. Member groups like the Lesbian Sex Mafia and Gay Male S/M Activists reflect the broad diversity of sexual orientation that is very much a part of the national s/m-leather-fetish subculture.
NCSF has been increasingly effective in speaking up for the basic civil rights and freedom of speech of people involved in safe, sane, consensual s/m. It has successfully fought selective enforcement of zoning and public indecency laws in San Diego, Baltimore, Attleboro (Massachusetts), and Washington, DC Its Law Enforcement Outreach Program strives both to educate law enforcement officials about s/m communities, and to educate members of the s/m community about how to minimize their risk as potential targets of selective enforcement of zoning, public indecency, and aggravated assault laws.
NCSF spokesperson Susan Wright notes that the organization has very much wanted to take the initiative in challenging antisexual legislation like the Communications Decency Act, rather than waiting to respond to what it saw as inevitable upcoming attacks on sexual expression from the Bush-Ashcroft Administration.
NCSF is sure that new attacks on sexually-oriented materials and entertainment, particularly material available on the Internet, has been high on the priority list of the Ashcroft Justice Department, even if that agenda has been somewhat delayed by the focus on terrorism that followed the events of September 11. They note that on November 14, Ashcroft appointed Andrew G. Osterbaan to head the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section. Earlier this year, Ashcroft assured various conservative organizations that he intended to vigorously pursue prosecutions under the CDA. On June 9 he also told the House Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department intended to be "especially accommodating to local law enforcement" with regard to helping them put operators of Internet sex sites behind bars.
"Our goal [with the Nitke suit]," says Wright, "is to overturn this unconstitutional provision [of the CDA] before this Administration tries to score political points by attempting to enforce it." Attorney John Wirenius adds that there is much to be gained from seizing the initiative in legal matters, rather than waiting to mount defenses to prosecutions initiated by the Justice Department. "This way we get to choose the test case, not Ashcroft," he emphasizes. "I'd much rather have the obscenity provision of the CDA be decided on the basis of Barbara Nitke's work than on the basis of something like http://www.bestiality.com/"
Wirenius is optimistic about Nitke v. Ashcroft at the Federal District Court level. He notes that Judge Richard Berman, who will preside over the case in Federal District Court this spring, wrote what Wirenius calls a "terrific decision," Swedenburg v. Kelly, in which he ruled that material on the Internet cannot be subjected to geographical community standards in the same way that books or films can. "Judge Berman," says Wirenius, "is a fair-minded judge who understands the posed by the Internet."
Wirenius is also optimistic of the fate of Nitke v. Ashcroft before the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case will ultimately be decided. He sees this case as a logical extension of Reno v. ACLU from issues of indecency to those of obscenity and notes that, despite its general conservative bent, the current Supreme Court has been fairly vigilant on free speech issues.
Whether or not Nitke v. Ashcroft is ultimately successful in overturning the obscenity provision of CDA, the fact that the issue is being raised by NCSF represents a significant new political and legal posture for the s/m community which, until recently, has been more closeted and less inclined to take aggressive political and legal action than more long-standing and well-known sexual minority groups. As NCSF notes, "in the past decade, alternative sexual expression [particularly s/m] has become much more visible to the general public," and people who engage in s/m have therefore become subject to "an increasing number of attacks against our right to freedom of sexual expression." Actions like Nitke v. Ashcroft demonstrate that s/m practitioners have begun to join the ranks of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people in insisting that non-traditional sexual and gender expression not subject them to anything less than full and equal treatment under the law.
By LARRY NEUMEISTER
Associated Press Writer, July 25, 2005, 7:58 PM EDT
NEW YORK -- A special three-judge federal panel on Monday refused to find unconstitutional a law making it a crime to send obscenity over the Internet to children.
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 had been challenged by Barbara Nitke, a photographer who specializes in pictures of sadomasochistic sexual behavior, and by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, a Baltimore-based advocacy organization.
They contended in a December 2001 lawsuit brought in U.S. District Court in Manhattan that the law was so broad and vague in its scope that it violated the First Amendment, making it impossible for them to publish to the Internet because they cannot control the forum.
A judge from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and two district judges heard the facts of the case and issued a written decision saying the plaintiffs had provided insufficient evidence to prove the law was unconstitutional.
The panel noted that evidence was offered to indicate there are at least 1.4 million Web sites that mention bondage, discipline and sadomasochism but that evidence was insufficient to decide how many sites might be considered obscene.
The judges said the evidence also was insufficient for them to determine how much the standards for obscenity differ in communities across the United States.
The court said it was necessary to know how much the standards vary to decide if those creating Web sites would be graded for obscenity unfairly when compared with those who market traditional pornography and can control how they distribute the material.
As the law stands, a communication is obscene if according to each community's standards it appeals to the prurient interest, depicts or describes sexual conduct in an offensive way and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
The law requires that those sending the communications take reasonable actions to restrict or prevent access by children to obscenity, sometimes by using a verified credit card, debit account or adult access code as proof of age.
Nitke, who has exhibited her work for more than 20 years, said she will appeal the ruling.
"I'm appalled," she said. "I think it's vitally important to keep the Internet free for education, the arts and open discussion on sexual targets."
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom also was disappointed with the ruling, spokeswoman Susan Wright said.
"Personal Web sites and chat groups that include discussions and images of explicit sexuality are at risk of prosecution," she said. "Basically, we proved we're at risk of prosecution, and speech has been chilled because people are afraid to put anything sexual on their Web sites."
Group lawyer John Wirenius said in a statement that the court declined to find the law unconstitutional "by setting a standard so high that no plaintiff could have met it."
"They required us to prove facts that the government has refrained from making a paper trail on for 30 years," he said.
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom works to change antiquated laws, oppose censorship of consensual sexual expression and help people who are facing the threat of prosecution or legal action, its Web site says.
by Veronica Vera
New York Daily News, July 15, 2002
Photographer Barbara Nitke is used to being behind the lens, but if legal matters heat up, she may soon find the government focusing on her.
Nitke is ready to step into the foreground as the chief plantiff in Barbara Nitke and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom vs. John Ashcroft and the US Government in a challenge to the Communications Decency Act, which governs obscenity on the Internet.
The lawsuit was filed on Dec. 11 in Manhattan Federal Court of New York; the government moved to dismiss, and the plaintiffs have moved for an injunction.
The case continues to make its way through the courts.
Nitke, whose photo show "20 Years" opened on Friday at the Art at Large Studio in Manhattan, began her career in 1982 as a still photographer on movie sets.
But since 1994, her emphasis has been on chronicling the intimate lives of couples. She has gained a considerable reputation as a fine-art photographer and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.
Photojournalist Mark Peterson, who attended the packed opening, commented, "There is a beauty and ethereal quality to her work that forces people to look at it in a different way than they might have when they walked into the room." He compared her work with that of Robert Mapplethorpe, who stirred controversy with his erotic photos.
Nitke's involvement in the civil liberties lawsuit began when she decided to create a website on which to show and sell her work. Aware that her photographs are highly provocative, she consulted several lawyers regarding obscenity laws, only to discover that under the Communications Decency Act, obscenity is a gray area determined by community standards.
A 1997 Supreme Court ruling struck down half of the act, the "indecency" section, when it determined that if a work is indecent but still can be found to have redeeming social value, it can be displayed in public. But the "obscenity" portion of the act still stands. Among the lawyers Nitke consulted was John Wirenius, legal counsel for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.
The members of the coalition, "a national organization committed to protecting freedom of expression among consenting adults," were also concerned about obscenity statutes and decided to pursue a proactive stance and challenge the law. They asked Nitke to be the plaintiff because, as Wirenius said, "We wanted to make clear that under the current law, a serious artist whose work is sexually explicit and controversial could be prosecuted."
The tactic proposed by the coalition to sue the government to either define or eliminate the obscenity law appealed to Nitke, who said she believed, "Why wait to respond to trouble if you can nip trouble in the bud?"
Barbara Nitke's "20 years" can be seen through August 3 at Art at Large, located in the Film Center, 630 Ninth Ave. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 1pm to 6pm and Saturday and Sunday by appointment.
This article appeared on:
December 11, 2001
Photographer Barbara Nitke and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) filed a lawsuit today, claiming the Internet censorship provision of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
The provision stipulates that "local community standards" will judge whether or not something is indecent. Yet attorney John Wirenius argues that "By allowing the most restrictive jurisdiction to define what speech can be banned as obscene from the Internet, the CDA allows one community to limit what the entire nation is allowed to discuss, to read or to view. The First Amendment does not allow any one locality to impose its morality on the nation."
Artists like Barbara Nitke fear that their artwork could be targeted by John Ashcroft, who has promised to enforce obscenity laws.