Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Outer Limits of the First Amendment

Out in California, they sure do vote on a lot of stuff.

For example, Los Angeles County had a ballot initiative this year about whether actors in pornographic films should be required to wear condoms. The idea, apparently, is that this will improve the public health by reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. However, county lawmakers opposed the measure because it will require the creation of a new bureaucracy:
The county has said the law, pushed by AIDS activists concerned about disease outbreaks, forces the establishment of a new bureaucracy, complete with inspection schedules, a permitting process, a training program for dealing with bodily fluids and a special vault for evidence seized from movie sets. County employees could even be called upon to screen X-rated titles for condom compliance.
What's more, not even public health officials in Los Angeles county supported the measure:
County officials said they were in favor of condom use, but didn't support new local action because the state had jurisdiction for workplace safety and, in any case, enforcement would be too difficult. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county health officer, wrote in a report this summer that it would be challenging to identify "underground, inconspicuous, intentionally non-compliant filmmakers." County lawyers also said they worried that the measure violated the 1st Amendment.
Nonetheless, the measure passed and, as County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said, "People voted for it, and they're entitled to have it on the books. It's a challenge we're going to have to confront."

Pornographers, of course, are in an uproar and are threatening to take their business elsewhere:
The passage of the law created an outcry Wednesday in the adult entertainment industry. Porn producers have long said consumers will not purchase movies in which actors wear condoms and on Wednesday, executives and directors once again threatened to move from long-time production sites in the San Fernando Valley to other California counties, Las Vegas or Hungary, Europe's center of adult moviemaking.
Some thoughts:

1) I never thought I'd see the day where government officials in an urban county would oppose a law on the basis that it would create too much bureaucracy but then the people would go ahead and overrule them by saying, in effect, "we want more bureaucracy!" Truly, we get the government we deserve.

2) It seems to me that the lawmaking system that permits such a thing to occur is sub-optimal. In other words, it is too easy to get these kinds of measures on the ballot in California.

3) I am looking forward to the First Amendment fight over this new law. Porn has often been at the center of First Amendment jurisprudence. Indeed, under the standard set forth in Roth v. United States, the Supreme Court was constantly reviewing pornography to determine whether it was "obscene" and therefore beyond the First Amendment's protection. This led to one of the Supreme Court's great moments, in Jacobellis v. Ohio, when Justice Stewart admitted that he could formulate no legal standard to separate obscenity from protected material but "I know it when I see it." The current standard on obscenity, set out in Miller v. California has essentially ended such investigations and allowed hard-core pornography to proliferate freely. But the proliferation is partly because neither the pornographers nor the prudes want to test the boundaries of the law, for fear of enshrining an unfavorable regime. In other words, the prudes are waiting for their moment. Maybe this is it. (But probably not.)

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