Archive Page 2

22
Aug
14

Viewing Rights – The Constitutional Right to View Erotic Material

What are your constitutional rights when it comes to viewing pornographic, violent or controversial material in your own home? This is a question we frequently address as First Amendment attorneys, and on which there is still some confusion in the minds of consumers.  Is there a right to view or possess pornography?  What about obscenity?  The answer to both of these questions, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Right of Privacy, is indisputably yes.

Stanley v. Georgia was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the home of Robert Stanley, a Georgia resident, was searched by police. Stanley was previously convicted of bookmaking, and was suspected of conducting such nefarious activities again. Police had a warrant to search his home for bookmaking paraphernalia, and instead, found pornographic material in a drawer. Under Georgia law, it was a crime to possess obscene materials. Stanley was charged and convicted, and the conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court of Georgia.

That was not the end of the Stanley’s story, however. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction, and in the process made clear that all state laws criminalizing the mere possession of obscenity were invalid. In doing so, the Supreme Court noted that there is also a fundamental “right to be free, except in very limited circumstances, from unwanted governmental intrusions into one’s privacy.”  Regarding the notion that the State of Georgia could control the contents of an individual’s personal home library, the Court said this was “wholly inconsistent with the philosophy of the First Amendment.”

Out of Stanley comes the legal principle that individuals are free to possess and view pornography, even if that material is considered obscene, in their own homes. Stanley placed no specific restrictions on the content or subject matter of the materials. Individuals are free to possess extreme erotic material in their own homes, and may additionally view whatever fetish or subject area they wish.

This right is not absolute, however. The right to view pornography comes with one important limitation: the prohibition against even mere possession of underage material. In Osborne v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states’ prohibitions on the mere possession of child pornography are not inconsistent with the First Amendment and therefore, even private possession of child pornography is illegal. What constitutes possession, however, varies by state. Some states have court rulings or statutes saying that viewing without downloading constitutes possession, while other states require active downloading onto the hard drive to meet the possession threshold. Under federal law, “receipt” of child pornography via the internet or other interstate transmission is prohibited as well, thus triggering potential federal penalties for these acts.

Importantly for advertisers and operators of adult websites, the U.S. Supreme Court has heldthat it is also illegal to promote something as containing underage materials even if it actually includes only adult performers, pursuant to federal “pandering” laws.  Importantly for viewers, anything that is suggested to be underage material may actually contain such material, so it would therefore be best not to access such materials at all. Additionally, “morphed” or “photoshopped” images, containing the bodies of adults but the heads or faces of minors, have been the subject of recent and conflicting court decisions.  Nonetheless, consumers are warned to avoid this content as well, given the potential risks.           

Aside from the possession of underage materials, what is legal to view in your own home is a large category and includes exceedingly controversial content; such as images of violence, animal cruelty, and even “virtual” underage images, videos, cartoons or drawings. For violent images, there is interestingly no limit to the amount of simulated or real violence that can be viewed, as obscenity laws only apply to sexually-oriented materials. Although extremely controversial or violent materials may be legal to view, one must make his or her own personal decision whether to support or endorse content depicting self-harm or individuals being exploited. Another important point for viewers to note is that downloading a video depicting a real crime of violence may place you in the position of possessing relevant evidence, and subsequently destroying such evidence may, itself, be a crime.

Excepting the possession of underage materials, as noted above, individuals are free to view and possess a wide variety of violent and erotic content in their own homes, without fear of criminal prosecution.  The First Amendment needs sufficient “breathing room” to survive, and part of that is tolerating the private possession of material that might be illegal in other contexts, like obscenity.   However, with the widespread use of smart phones to create a diverse amount of both erotic and violent material, substantial questions remain regarding the legality of “producing” images that might be perfectly legal to possess. 

Larry Walters has been on the forefront of defending the adult entertainment industry for over 20 years, and has defended numerous high profile obscenity cases for adult site webmasters. He operates Walters Law Group (www.FirstAmendment.com) which focuses on Internet law, First Amendment issues and intellectual property.

16
Jul
14

Censored by Google: What’s Next?

Google, a name most associated with the popular, gargantuan search engine, has been making its way into the headlines for a different and much more egregious reason: censorship across its platform of products.  The company recently made waves for prohibiting adult material on its advertising network, AdWords.  Now, it seems, Google has expanded its censorial policies and many are wondering just where the company will stop.

Xbiz.com founder and editor, Alec Helmy, called out the search giant for its hypocritical behavior; echoing the concerns of many in the adult industry.  In an open letter, Helmy wrote, “Your decision has left countless businesses in dismay, bewildered about why an ultra-progressive company that is so committed to ‘Freedom of Express’ would make such a decision.  These same companies also remain concerned about what the future may hold – specifically, whether you will also decide to place adult oriented websites at a decided disadvantage in organic search results.”

Through a spokesperson, Google claims its restrictive policies on adult advertisements are not new.  However, many familiar with Google and the adult industry do not agree.  Theo Sapoutzis, chairman and CEO of AVN Media Network, said he was surprised by the move: “I was one of the very first advertisers for AdWords back in 2002.  It’s something that’s been [untouched] for 12 years, so you don’t expect change is going to start happening.”

Tom Hymes, senior editor at AVN, agrees, noting that many in the adult industry have been abiding by Google’s rules for years and are now being abandoned by the search giant: “There are many people who say the biggest losers are the ones who play by the rules.  The winners are the huge properties with a lot of free content and frequent updates – the type of actions the Google algorithms really like.”  BaDoink CEO, Todd Gilder, added to the chorus with a scathing open letter to Google, noting: “When an organization as visionary, powerful and dominant as Google starts kowtowing to shrewd, faith-based special interest groups with federal lobbyists like Patrick A. Trueman at the helm, it’s a sad day for freedom and a sad day for IT.”

Now, Google is taking its censorship on advertisements a step further and directing business users to cover up “sexually explicit content” in the form of album covers.  The search giant has instructed music website Drowned in Sound (DiS) to pixelate, thereby censoring explicit cover art.  Sean Adams, founder of DiS said that “it seems crazy that they feel they can police our editorial.”  He also wondered just far Google would go with its censorship policies in the future.  Just recently, Google surprised many users when it removed several thousand links in an effort to comply with the EU’s “right to be forgotten” law.

Adams is certainly not alone in questioning the lengths and depths of the company’s censorship.  Many people, both in and out of the adult industry, are uncomfortable with Google’s recent decisions and wonder what will come next.  Attorney Michael Fattorosi stated, “This is another example of a mainstream company turning its back on the industry that has supported it.  The question now becomes: Will they block adult content from their search results?”

Google has also previously attempted to keep adult content out of other major products: developers are not permitted to share Google Glass apps with sexually explicit content and sexually explicit materials are banned from Chromecast.

Many are speculating that pressure from conservative groups caused Google’s policy changes regarding adult content.  Morality in Media, an ultra-conservative media activist group, claimed through a press release that Google’s policy changes came after a “productive meeting” between the two.  Google has refused to confirm the connection.  If accurate, this kowtowing to a family values group is a first for the search engine giant, which previously prided itself on commitment to free expression principles.

David Holmes, writing for Pando Daily, explains the greater problem of Google’s censorship and its impact beyond the adult industry.  Holmes writes:

You may despise pornography, but the specter of “family values” has often been used to attack anything that threatens traditional Christian morality, from homosexuality to books about wizards.  I doubt Google will ban Out Magazine or Harry Pottery anytime soon, but what about links to, say, a provocative work of art like Piss Christ?  Or ads for birth control?

As Holmes notes, the importance of tracking Google’s policy changes is not only for their impact on industries currently hurt by the new rules, but also their potential to censor information Google doesn’t agree with in the future.  Holmes colleague, Mark Ames, makes an important point: “Never in history has one corporation and one source had so much power over what we know and don’t know.”

Google’s power to filter the information received by the public is vast, and its ability censor disfavored speech, dangerous.  Most importantly, this is everyone’s issue, not the select few whom Google has decided to target today.    

12
Jun
14

DMCA Evolution: Forum Solicits Input on Possible Changes to Notice and Takedown Procedures

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA) “notice and takedown” procedure and the attendant “safe harbor” protections afforded to service providers often spark controversy and debate. Originally designed as a way to balance the interests of copyright holders and online service providers, the DMCA’s 14 year history has demonstrated that well-intended laws can quickly become outdated and misused.  Often DMCA notices are sent by, or on behalf of, competitors seeking to damage another party’s business, or by those who do not understand basic “fair use” concepts.  On the other hand, DMCA safe harbor can be manipulated and invoked by parties that Congress never intended to protect from copyright infringement liability.

Change is in the air, however, at least for traditional DMCA notice and takedown procedures. Recently, the United States Patent and Trademark Office opened a public forum in pursuit of ideas for improving the notice and takedown process explicated by the DMCA. The forum was to be the first of a series of such, all geared towards the ultimate goal of increased efficiency, as well as continued protection for copyright holders, under the DMCA. The public discussion came after a green paper released in July 2013 by the Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force examined problems with the current notice and takedown process.

The purpose of the forum, according to Patrick Ross, a USPTO spokesman, was to solicit input to answer the questions raised by rights holders, service providers and the public at large, as addressed in the green paper.

The speakers were from a diverse cross-section of those affected by the DMCA: The Software Alliance, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Artists Rights Society, Google and many others.

One of the most common complaints from rights holders, according to the forum, is the inability of small and medium-sized artists or enterprises (SME’s) to keep up with infringement of their work. A proposed solution to this was the encouragement of collective representation for infringement research.

Additionally, one of the main and pressing topics examined at the forum was whether standardization of forms for the notice and takedown procedure would be helpful, both to rights holders and service providers. Overall, many of the participants believed that standard forms for notices seemed a good beginning, but certainly not a good end. The feeling at the forum was that there remained much work to be done. Several of the speakers, both service providers and rights holders, stressed the need to maintain balance in any solution designed to bring more efficiency to the DMCA, so that both sides would find value in the notice and takedown procedures.

Another possible solution discussed was creating “Trusted Submitter” programs, something Google has done, to more efficiently process DMCA notices. More diverse solutions were offered as well, such as the potential creation of a certification mark or badge for Internet search results, to alert consumers which pages were authorized or licensed sites for the particular intellectual property being searched for.

Given the large volume of notices received by most service providers, which often makes responding in a timely fashion difficult and costly, this is a great moment in time to examine better and more efficient methods of protecting copyrights online. The DMCA has been an important tool, for both rights holders and service providers alike, and may need to be updated to continue as such.

As discussed at the forum, it is important to keep in mind the balancing of interests that goes into any intellectual property issues on the Internet. Rights holders must be given a fair and easy way to prevent and police infringement, while online service providers must have an opportunity to efficiently and easily handle incoming notices.  Those who abuse the notice and takedown process must also be held accountable.

19
May
14

Byte-Sexual: Recognizing the evolving relationships with our electronic devices

Does the virtual assistant on your smartphone just “get you”? For many smart phone users, interacting with a natural speech-recognizing, intelligent, digital assistant – ever-present on their devices – has become a way of life. It was impossible to imagine just a few years ago that we would become a society dependent on our bots, for everything from driving to a place we’ve never been to seeking out the latest movie reviews.  Perhaps predictably, some individuals prefer interacting with artificial intelligence over human beings.  Others have even developed ‘feelings’ for their digital devices.  Yes, there is even a name for such a fetish: mechanophilia.

For the past several years, the popular online dating website Match.com has been defending a lawsuit alleging that the company utilizes fake user profiles in order to encourage real members to renew their subscriptions. The suit also claims that Match does not adequately vet their profiles, and that the site may be filled with hundreds of profiles that are inactive or scams.

The concept of interacting with a ‘bot’ or artificial intelligence is not new.  Many of us have clicked a ‘live chat’ help button, only to quickly realize that we were ‘speaking’ with a computer program designed to help resolve our issue before a paid employee was required to spend time figuring it out.  But the technology driving modern artificial intelligence like Apple’s Siri is astounding – and only getting better.  Soon it may be difficult to discern the difference between live chat with a human being as opposed to a programmed bot.  For website users seeking purely online interaction or flirtation, the distinction may be unimportant.

The use of ‘virtual’ or ‘fantasy’ profiles is not new (or unique) to the online dating world, but recently the government has begun to question whether this practice is “fair” or “deceptive.”    But is there anything inherently ‘wrong’ with individuals flirting with bots or artificial intelligence?  Is it possible that some socially awkward or shy individuals may actually prefer virtual relationships rather than the thought of real human interaction?

Director Spike Jonze recently released his film Her,” staring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, about a man who falls in love with his operating system. Eventually, the OS, who goes by “Samantha,” tells the main character, Theodore, that she must leave (along with all the other operating systems). The implication is that the incredible number of relationships she was having with humans became too much for her and that she and the other systems no longer wanted to be among humans.

The question seemingly posed in the film was why any human would choose interaction with a bot over interaction with another human. A more relevant question might be:  must we question why?

Many of the online dating websites using virtual profiles do so with full consumer disclosure, including statements on landing pages, in user agreements, and through distinct labels placed on the profiles and any messages they may send. Despite the disclosures, millions of individuals willingly interact with these programs, and apparently enjoy the process.  The role of the government in regulating, or even prohibiting, this form of entertainment must be questioned.

This issue has increasingly made headlines.  Just this month, a man petitioned the State of Florida to allow him to lawfully wed his laptop computer. In the case of Chris Sevier, the laptop wasn’t exactly his original object: His computer was filled with porn and due to this, he claims he “fell in love” with his computer and began “preferring having sex” with it over living persons. Sevier, in fact, argued that his “love” for his computer should be validly recognized by the court. While an extreme and perhaps humorous example, this case is illustrative of a trend on the horizon that can no longer be ignored: People are developing relationships with their digital devices and programs.

Maitresse Madeline, a fetish webcam model, has also spoken out about this very issue. Earlier this year, a man paid $42,000 for a single webcam session with her. Madeline believes that this exorbitant sum can be explained by the fact that individuals are actually paying for the virtual relationship, not paying in spite of it. According to CNET, Madeline told Kinky.com, “They’re often paying for the ambiguity that a Webcam relationship can create and that relationship over Webcam is, essentially, their fetish.”  Sometimes, it seems, virtual relationships on the Internet are exactly the experience users seek. Madeline went on; “They often want to be whoever they can dream up over the Internet and prefer to only have a relationship online.”

This new world of virtual love has already been alluded to within the confines of the law. Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University Miami, leads an annual conference called We Robot,” where the goal is simply to get people thinking about the legal implications of a world with robots in it. According to Froomkin, it’s not unusual for technology to get ahead of the law.  “You design stuff to make it work and you don’t think a lot about the legal and social consequences,” Froomkin told NPR. “So by the time the lawyers get in the room, the standards are already baked and the stuff is already deployed.”

Froomkin’s point is a valid one and has played out repeatedly, as the law lags behind technology. Although we may be years off from a fully functional, human-like bot with a deeply developed personality like “Samantha,” we do currently live in the world of Siri’s and virtual profiles. The future of bots may not be here just yet, but who’s to judge how humans should be permitted to interact with the bots of their choice? The one aspect that distinguishes humans from bots is free will.  As creatures born with free will, should we not have the choice to interact with, and be entertained by, our digital creations?

07
May
14

Censorship by Money: Snuffing Out Adult Entertainment by Denial of Banking Services

Adult film stars are reportedly having their bank accounts systematically closed by JP Morgan Chase bank, for no other reason than their connection with porn. According to industry publications and more directly, tweets from adult film performers, Chase has been busy sending letters to hundreds of performers, arbitrarily closing their accounts with the financial institution. One actress, Teagan Presley, attempted to open another account at Bank of America after her termination at Chase but was immediately denied.   Our law firm has received numerous similar stories of account closures or denial of banking services.

This is not the first time financial institutions have targeted the adult industry. Last year, adult performer Chanel Preston reported being denied a loan from City National Bank in Los Angeles due to her status in the adult industry. Earlier that month, industry producer Marc L. Greenberg was also denied a loan from Chase on what the bank called “moral” grounds. Years ago, PayPal turned its back on the adult industry, and refused to process payments for most adult-oriented products and services. More recently, blogs have noted that online payment processors such as Paypal, along with WePay, have ramped up their hostility towards erotica, by shutting down accounts of bloggers involved in merely publishing content of a sexually-oriented nature.

In response to these discriminatory banking activities, a popular Change.org petition has been created, demanding that Chase reverse these decisions.  The public pressure on Chase previously caused the bank to reverse its decision on the denial of payment processing services, through its subsidiary, Paymentech, to a condom sales company who challenged the action.  The outrage felt by adult industry performers and publishers is certainly justified, but is the activity illegal?  Certainly, private banks can do business with whomever they choose, right?  That’s partially true, but there’s more to the story.  Initially, there are some restrictions imposed on the banking and financial community when it comes to illegal discrimination.  For example, banks cannot systematically deny loans and other services to disadvantaged minorities, without running afoul of federal law.

However, the stunning truth is that these account closures appear to be motivated by none other than the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which created a leaked program dubbed “Operation Choke Point” designed to pressure banks into denying service to certain disfavored industries including “pornography.”  Vice News notes that megabanks and other financial institutions, like Chase, are responding to this pressure by closing adult performers’ accounts, and denying services to other adult businesses. The banking industry, itself, seems to be uncomfortable with this governmental overarch into the financial sector. American Bankers Association CEO Frank Keating wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed noting that the banks may have no real say in the issue, since the choices are either to comply or get slammed with a penalty. William Isaac, the former chairman of the FDIC has even called Operation Choke Point “way out of control.”

The government’s efforts in applying thumb screws to federally-regulated banks in order to snuff out erotic businesses engaged in First Amendment-protected entertainment constitutes censorship – pure and simple. Instead of falling into the realm of discretionary private business decisions that would ordinarily be protected from legal liability, denial of banking to adult industry participants at the behest of the DOJ likely violates federal civil rights conspiracy laws, including 42 U.S.C. § 1985.  This infrequently-invoked federal statute prohibits two or more individuals (or government actors) from conspiring to deprive a person’s civil rights or equal protection under the law.  While the statute has primarily been used in the context of racial discrimination, it could well provide a legal vehicle for claims against banks and others who have conspired with the DOJ to discriminate against adult performers based solely on their participation in erotic expression.  This sort of retaliation against citizens for participating in constitutionally-protected activity is intolerable, if not illegal.  The idea that our government would use the full force and intimidation of the Department of Justice to pressure banks (who are now largely indebted to the feds for bailing them out in 2008) into terminating customers it finds politically advantageous, represents a new low in governmental censorship.

Restricting the ability to access fundamental banking services can spell disaster for any business, and the DOJ presumably knows this.  In fact, the author predicted this sort of governmental interference in the financial system as a means to impose censorship of erotica as far back as 2002, in the article entitled “A Chokehold on the Gatekeepers.”  Cut off the ability to move money, and the business dries up.

Far from achieving its perhaps original purpose of curbing money laundering and other illegal activities, Operation Choke Point has become a means for the federal government to use banks to do its own dirty work of censoring adult businesses – something it could not do directly, thanks to the First Amendment.  While affected performers and businesses may suffer in the long term, the continued popularity of digital currencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin may prove to be an important alternative for the adult industry to stay in business.  Already, it has been reported that the affected businesses are flocking to Bitcoin to avoid the banking problems. While accepting Bitcoin as a payment method has inherent risks, and no one alternative currency is the perfect solution, this is another example of the Internet routing around censorship.  So long as creative solutions are considered by the affected industries, the banks will lose some of their ability to control the content of entertainment and free expression.

16
Apr
14

Isaacs Obscenity Case & Life Without Miller

In a not-so-surprising, albeit disappointing, decision affecting the adult entertainment industry, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the obscenity conviction of fetish producer, Ira Isaacs. Isaacs was originally charged with violating federal obscenity statutes in 2007, after the distribution of several of his fetish films via U.S. mail.  Isaacs’s 2008 trial was placed on hold and eventually resulted in a mistrial, amid judicial controversy.  Judge Alex Kozinski, who presided over the obscenity prosecution, recused himself within days of commencing the trial, after it was discovered that the Judge had been maintaining a personal humor website exhibiting sexually explicit images.  After another attempt to try the case in 2011 was delayed when prosecutors added more charges, the Isaacs case eventually went to a full trial in March of 2012. For a second time, however, a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked on the verdict, 10-2 in favor of the government. The case was tried for a third time in April of 2012, which resulted in conviction and is the basis for the recent appeal.

In general, the Obama administration has been decidedly less interested in obscenity prosecutions than was its Republican predecessor. Since 2009, the administration’s prosecutors have tried only two adult obscenity cases, in contrast to the volumes of obscenity prosecutions that took place under President George W. Bush. Notably, Obama’s Department of Justice has not initiated any of its own obscenity prosecutions, but merely followed through with pending cases initially filed by the prior administration.

Isaacs’ most recent, unsuccessful appeal relied more on procedural due process arguments, as opposed to disputing his guilt of violating obscenity laws.  The numerous due process claims were rooted in allegations of uncertainty directly related to the Miller Test; specifically, the concept of “prurient interest” as set out in the first prong of the test. According to the ruling, the District Court adopted a proposed jury instruction defining an “appeal to ‘prurient interest” as “an appeal to a morbid, degrading, and unhealthy interest in sex.” After a question was posed by a juror, the Court revised the instruction to read “morbid, degrading or unhealthy.” Isaacs argued that the change “undermined the credibility of his lawyer,” as the attorney, in closing argument, referred to the original instruction. The District Court rejected this contention, finding that the attorney had in fact used both formulations of the instruction during argument so it was “unclear how the revision might have implied to the jury that Isaacs misled it as to applicable law.” Further, the District Court noted that while Isaacs argued that it was error for the Court to correct the instruction, there was an obligation on the Court to clarify issues for the jury, so that they did not abuse their discretion in doing so.

The 1973 case Miller v. California established the standard that is still used today for what defines obscenity. The Miller test, as it is known, has three essential prongs:

  1. Whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest
  2. Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law and
  3. Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value

Miller has been a source of controversy and debate in the adult industry, since its inception.  The difficulty with the average juror understanding and applying the inherently vague terms of the Miller test can produce unpredictable results.  Unfortunately for Isaacs, the odds were against him from the beginning, given the nature of the content at issue.  Scat material has typically been some of the most difficult to defend, and explain to juries who tend to be shocked when exposed to the content.  While some fetish material has survived obscenity prosecution, this case resulted in a conviction, and now an affirmance on appeal.

Any time an adult industry participant is convicted of obscenity, discussions ensue regarding the continued viability of the Miller test in today’s world, and whether the industry should support a constitutional challenge to the test.  Given the Supreme Court’s repeated validation of the Miller test for obscenity, even in recent years, it is unlikely to be changed any time soon. But even if the Court was inclined to replace the current obscenity test, the question becomes: With what? Outright abandonment of the well-entrenched concept of obscenity laws is an unlikely result of any such case brought to the Supreme Court, despite some of the encouraging language in Justice Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas.  If the challenge was based on the claim that the Miller test was insufficiently clear for common understanding, one could envision the Court handing down a crystal clear, bright-line prohibition on the depiction of specific sex acts, fetish behavior, or BDSM activity, under the guise of more clearly defining obscenity for adult content producers.  In situations like this, it is always wise to reflect on what the parties are really asking for – because they might just get it.

While Miller suffers from its vague concepts and outdated language, it has provided opportunities for creative arguments, and stunning victories.  While the test is difficult on defendants, it is equally difficult for prosecutors, who are used to well-defined criminal offenses that are not dependent on notions of societal tolerance or considerations of literary value.  Obscenity prosecutions have dwindled to a virtual halt in modern times, and the difficulty in applying the Miller test in today’s society may be partially to thank.  The “community standards” element suffers from outdated concepts of unified values and social mores based on geography, which arise from something out of Andy Griffith or Leave it to Beaver.  Today, neighbors have more in common with their Facebook friends spread out across the world than they do with their neighbor – most of whom they never met.  Fortunately, the decision in U.S. v. Kilbride recognized this inherent weakness of using local community standards, and required juries to apply national standards – at least in online obscenity prosecutions.  With tweaks like these, Miller may be more of a benefit than a hindrance to producers of erotic content, as compared to some other bright line test.  Certainly, all obscenity laws are forms of censorship, and antithetical to First Amendment values.  The Miller test does little to logically separate specific types of content from constitutionally protected speech.  However, it may be as good as it gets for the time being, even if it results in the stray, unfortunate conviction.

So what’s next for Ira Isaacs and obscenity prosecutions?  Isaacs recently petitioned the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear his case, with his lawyer arguing, among other things, that the case was not given the “special care that the First Amendment requires.” The likelihood of Isaacs’ petition for rehearing being granted, however, is slim. Assuming it is denied, the chances of the Supreme Court accepting the case are not promising, either.   However, should the Court take interest in the case, it would likely be for the sole reason of again affirming the viability of the Miller obscenity test. For Isaacs and his counsel, they have every reason to try, and should not be faulted to doing everything in their power to undo the conviction.  But in the off chance that the Supreme Court takes the case, it’s time to buckle up.  If the decision results in anything other than a re-affirmance of Miller, things could get dicey.

Perhaps the Isaacs case will be the last federal obscenity prosecution for a while, as the futility of reigning in the human desire for sexual expression begins to set in for the DOJ.  But as long as we have laws on the books that permit the government to put people in cages for making movies involving consenting adults, the guardians of liberty must remain ever-vigilant.

25
Mar
14

Keeping Your Records Clean: Segregating 2257 Records under Federal Law

Performer ID’s? Check. 2257 form? Check. Model release? Check. Throw them all into a file or load them into a database and your legal tail is covered, right? Unfortunately, XXX law is never that simple, particularly when discussing compliance with federal regulations as applied to a highly regulated industry like adult entertainment.

 One of the most common mistakes our firm has seen over the years with section 2257 compliance is the inclusion of extraneous records in the 2257 file or database. The biggest offender always seems to be the model release, which is often kept alongside the 2257 form related to an individual performer. Logic would dictate that this is the proper procedure, and that all legal documentation associated with a performer should be maintained in the same place, at the risk of getting lost if separated. But alas, logic does not always inform obligations imposed by a federal statute. The applicable statutory provision appears in 28 C.F.R. § 75.2(e) which states: 

Records required to be maintained under this part shall be segregated from all other records, shall not contain other records, and shall not be contained within any other records.  

Seems pretty clear, right? But even well-known adult entertainment lawyers have become confused on occasion, and recommend including information or other evidence in a performer’s 2257 file beyond the specific categories of material required by the statute (e.g. “dress size, phone number,” handwriting sample, etc.). The specific items that should be contained in any producer’s 2257 files and/or database, is beyond the scope of this article, and more importantly, the subject of retained legal advice. However, given the clear dictates of federal law, commonly obtained documents such as model releases, payment/compensation information, or evidence of sobriety have no place in a 2257 file. Such information could certainly be kept separately to help defend against later claims by models seeking to remove their content, but never included in a 2257 record. But any recommendation regarding keeping such information in a 2257 file is simply dangerous.

Why would the Department of Justice require this segregation of 2257 records from other performer records? Was that provision included just to make compliance more difficult and catch producers in technical violations? Although, one’s inner conspiracy theorist cannot immediately dismiss such questions – particularly when a controversial issue such as adult entertainment is the subject of the regulation- the real answer is probably less incendiary and much more practical. The fact of the matter is that FBI inspectors simply do not want to sift through mounds of irrelevant business documentation to find the federally mandated information that is pertinent to their investigation. The 2257 inspections that have occurred thus far, typically involved the use of a device to copy the relevant files and/or database in order to facilitate the inspection process and avoid unnecessary governmental review of proprietary business information. Segregating the records into a single physical or electronic file allows for easy copying and examination by authorized federal agents, without permitting review of extraneous and possibly confidential business information.

Section 2257 is not the only federal statute that requires some form of records segregation. For example, federal drug regulations mandate that medical professionals and researchers authorized to handle controlled substances, must keep separate records pertaining to such substances. Various portions of HIPAA, specifically those pertaining to the privacy regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family & Medical Leave Act, require that employers maintain employee medical records in separate files as well. Similarly, even psychotherapy notes and such related information must be segregated from other records under HIPAA privacy rules.

Some of the separation requirements are based on privacy concerns, such as those applicable to medical records, while others are focused on easing the burdens on inspectors (i.e., § 2257 and the controlled substances regulations).    Whatever the justification, it is clear that section 2257 requires that only the specific items required by the statute be included in the 2257 file/database. Unfortunately, before the adoption of this particular regulation in 2008 (effective in 2009), many 2257 forms circulated by XXX lawyers were included in, or comprised the first page of, the performer’s model release. Often, only one signature was obtained for both the model release and 2257 form. While this practice was certainly easier on the content producers and helped prevent inadvertent loss or misplacement of portions of a model’s legal documentation, this procedure is no longer permissible.

Unlike certain “grandfathering” provisions found in section 2257, such as those exempting content (created prior to March 18, 2009) depicting the “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area” of a person, the record segregation provision was effective immediately upon adoption. As a practical matter, that means content producers who were accustomed to maintaining extraneous documents (such as model releases) in their 2257 files were immediately obligated to clean out those files and separate any 2257 material from all other business records pertaining to the performer. Often this meant manually creating a new 2257 form or database from the data in the combined forms circulating prior to the adoption of 28 C.F.R. § 75.2(e). While this may sound unnecessary, particularly in an era when section 2257 is not being actively enforced, violations of this regulation still carry a potential five year federal prison sentence. Certainly this would be harsh punishment for content producers who happen to mix some extraneous performer information in their 2257 file. Notably, physicians have been carried away in handcuffs for failing to properly maintain controlled substances records in the proper format; this stands to reason that practically speaking, there is no difference between the two.

The good news is that segregating your business records from your 2257 records actually benefits the producer. A federal agent has no authority – and frankly no business – poring over documents containing proprietary business information, such as compensation details, exclusivity obligations, non-compete provisions, STD test results, or any other category of information not specifically authorized for review without a warrant under section 2257. Remember, FBI agents can enter a producer’s place of business without notice and demand to inspect 2257 records under penalty of federal prosecution. Producers of erotic content need not expose their entire business files to review by federal agents without a warrant, when such is not required by section 2257. Attempting to segregate 2257 records from other documents while the federal agents are waiting to conduct an inspection is not practical, and could arouse suspicion in the minds of the investigators.

An argument can also be made that producers have an affirmative obligation to protect the performer’s privacy rights, thus triggering the need to weed out sensitive performer documents from such files. In an age where privacy rights are dwindling at a rapid pace, every effort should be undertaken by producers of erotic content to demonstrate what is known in the law as a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Failing to keep 2257 files clean and separate from all other business documentation could result in a waiver of important constitutional rights to privacy if produced to federal agents during a 2257 inspection. Without a warrant, the government’s prying eyes must be limited to only those minimal categories of information that producers are obligated to make available under federal law.