2 Obscenity Standards, 1 Neat Solution: How Geotargeting Extends Traditional Obscenity Law to the Internet
28 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2012 Last revised: 18 May 2014
Date Written: February 6, 2011
The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech - but that protection is not absolute. Some speech is banned outright, such as child pornography. Other speech is nearly fully protected, such as erotic speech. Caught in the middle of the two is obscene speech, which can be owned in the privacy of one’s home, but cannot be disseminated publicly.
The line between obscenity and eroticism is hard to pinpoint, and varies from community to community. In general, the process of analyzing whether a work is obscene includes asking whether the content violates the community standards of the local geographic area where the material was published. Thus, for most media, publishers of potentially obscene content must choose the communities into which they publish, or face criminal charges from the least tolerant communities. But for online media, the Supreme Court remains undecided whether the obscenity analysis should use the local community standard. The Court’s doubts stem from the Internet’s global reach and lack of control over who receives free online content. For example, if a work is nationally-available online, and is judged using the same legal standard as in other traditional media, any local community offended by the content has the power of a heckler’s veto to make the publisher liable for distributing obscenity.
This Article explains why the use of a new online technology resolves the question of whether local community standards should be used to judge online content. Called geotargeting, the technology creates borders on the previously borderless Internet, which allows publishers to specifically target geographically localized communities, thereby excluding areas where the material might lead to criminal charges. This new power to publish potentially obscene materials only to selected communities drastically reduces the constitutional concerns of applying traditional obscenity law to online content.
Keywords: obscenity, internet, first amendment, little, miller, ACLU, geotargeting, Kilbride
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