The "Printed Word" Debate

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One of the most difficult and controversial issues that sharply divided the Commission was the special nature and especially protected character of the printed word. Simply put, the issue was this: does the printed word -- including printed and non-pictorial pornography -- deserve special consideration because of the unique relevance the printed word bears for First Amendment considerations and the precious right of political dissent in the United States, the almost exclusive burden of which is carried by the printed and spoken word?

I voted with the bare majority on this issue, upholding the special preeminence of the printed word and holding that, despite the fact that printed pornography can be declared legally obscene under the Miller standard, printed depictions merit special protection unless they involve the degradation and abuse of children.

Because my vote in particular seemed somewhat out of character in light of other government intervention with which I agree, and because it was virtually incomprehensible to some thoughtful people on the Commission and elsewhere, I take this opportunity to at least put on the public record the rationale for my vote.

It was abundantly clear from our discussions that virtually no current prosecution, on grounds of obscenity, of the printed word occur in the United States, and that furthermore, none are realistically contemplated because of the great difficulty and complexity of these prosecutions. Indeed, the Chairman of this Commission, Henry Hudson, conceded on the record that he could not conceive of ever undertaking a prosecution of the printed word.

The problem is of course that among this genre of printed pornography there exists a large body of materials that describe the sexual abuse of children and indeed, advocate for it. It is a particularly noisome and repellent body of literature that in effect is nothing less than "cook book" and how-to-do-it manuals, guides for the sexual exploitation of children.

I expressed to the Commission my strong conviction that unless these particular printed materials involving children were singled out for special and vigorous prosecution -- excerpted as it were from the broad mass of printed pornography -- the general reluctance to ever prosecute the printed word would prevent any attempt to proscribe these maleficent materials. It is my further conviction that the unanimous action of the Commission recommending the vigorous prosecution of obscene printed materials involving or advocating the sexual exploitation of children will, in fact, spur and aid prosecutors in the vigorous enforcement of the obscenity law, at least in regard to those materials depicting children. The hope of a total prosecution of obscene printed materials is disingenuous and futile-the crying need to prosecute to the full extent of the law those materials depicting the prurient sexual abuse of children is an urgent necessity.

A second reason led me to vote that special consideration be accorded the printed word. Fear of censorship was a constant theme of many witnesses who appeared before this Commission. I do not think we are entitled to judge that concern lightly, or to consider that those who express such anxiety are motivated by self interest. First Amendment values are crucial to American life and the virtual sanctity and integrity of the printed word central to the absolute freedom of political debate and dissent.

I do not agree with those who hold that efforts to regulate and proscribe sexually explicit materials according to the Miller standard signal a return to or adoption of a censorship mentality. In short I think that those possessed by such fears, while for them the fear may seem real, are quite simply wrong.

At the same time I thought it very important that the Commission send a strong message to the public that we do not favor a return to times when the repression of unpopular ideas was part of our political landscape. By the barest of margins, the majority of Commissioners adopted this view. I am proud to be among them.

Statement of Father Bruce Ritter

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