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U.S. Anti-Porn Effort Is Found Wanting

Obscenity foes say their support for Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft hasn't translated into the aggressive crackdown they expected.

November 23, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sometimes, Phil Burress wonders whether his faith in John Ashcroft was misplaced.

Three years ago, the anti-porn activist was looking to Ashcroft and the Justice Department to wage an aggressive crackdown on smut. Federal obscenity prosecutions had flagged during the Clinton administration.

The new attorney general, with his fervent Christian credentials, looked to be the ideal warrior to take on the nation's burgeoning and multibillion-dollar pornography industry.

"We thought, 'It is not going to take a long time to get this back up to speed,' " said Burress, who heads the Cincinnati group Citizens for Community Values, which started in the heyday of federal obscenity suits in the 1980s.

Today, the odds of a major federal revival in prosecuting porn appear to be fading. The Justice Department has picked up the pace and is filing more suits, but it has been mainly targeting smaller distributors that deal in the most radical fare. One exhibit: A North Hollywood adult-film maker called Extreme Associates that produces movies depicting fictional rapes and murders of women was indicted in August.

Critics said the strategy ignores the explosion of graphic sexual content that has become readily available over the Internet and elsewhere and that has become the porn industry's bread and butter.

Justice Department officials said they must pick their targets carefully because of scarce resources and the agency's all-consuming war on terrorism. But they also strongly defend their record to date and say more prosecutions are in the works.

Civil liberties groups have declared Ashcroft's tenure a disaster, primarily because of his department's response to the Sept. 11 attacks, including the detention and deportation of hundreds of illegal immigrants.

But it has also turned out to be a mixed blessing for the Christian right and other conservatives, who have long supported Ashcroft and whom Bush was looking to mollify when he named Ashcroft attorney general in December 2000.

In Ashcroft, "conservatives celebrated what they thought marked the end of hard-core's unchecked reign" says an article in the December issue of Citizen, the monthly magazine published by Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs, Colo., evangelical ministry. "But now, almost three years into Ashcroft's tenure, those celebrations have given way to disappointment."The debate over the pace of obscenity suits shows the crucial role of career Justice Department employees and how they respond to political pressure. The department's top obscenity cop, while hand-picked by Ashcroft, is also a Justice Department veteran who has resisted much of the political heat.

Besides pornography, conservatives are chafing at the department's record on abortion, including a decision last year to follow through on the prosecution of a Washington-area abortion foe that stemmed from a prayer vigil outside a women's clinic. The case was originally filed during the Clinton administration.The defendant, Patrick Mahoney, who heads a group called the Christian Defense Coalition, said he and his attorney believed that the new Justice Department would let the case drop. Instead, government attorneys went back to the trial court to seek a new injunction. Mahoney, who said he attended prayer meetings with Ashcroft when Ashcroft was in the Senate, was surprised to find himself "praying he wouldn't put me in jail." Ultimately, he signed a consent order restricting his activities.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the concerns being expressed by conservative groups illustrate how the Justice Department under Ashcroft has been applying the law evenhandedly.

"During his confirmation, the attorney general pledged to enforce federal law evenly, fairly and uniformly across the nation," he said. "In making good on that pledge, certain political groups on both sides of the political spectrum were bound to have disagreements with him from time to time."

But Ashcroft's battles with the right have made him a more divisive figure at a time when his public approval ratings have been slipping and when he has become an issue in the presidential campaign. A Harris Poll taken last month found that Ashcroft's favorable ratings dipped to 42% from 57% six months earlier.

Conservative activists say they don't want to be seen as adding to what they perceive to be the public tarring of the attorney general from the left. But they are also troubled by some of the things that he has done.

Connie Mackey, chief lobbyist for the Family Research Council, said her group, among others, fears that a section of the terror-fighting Patriot Act could be used to prosecute anti-abortion activists.

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