Los Angeles Times, 6/9/08 - Ira Isaacs says his films, which feature bestiality
and defecation, have artistic value. Federal prosecutors say they are criminally
obscene. Hours of footage will help jurors decide who's right.
If all goes according to plan, an otherwise stately federal courtroom in downtown Los Angeles will be converted into a makeshift movie theater this week, screening a series of graphic -- many would say vulgar -- sexual fetish videos.
At issue is how a jury will define obscenity in a region that boasts its status as the capital of the pornography industry and at a time when technology has made the taboo adult flicks of a generation ago available to a mainstream audience.
Hollywood filmmaker Ira Isaacs says the videos he sells are works of art, protected under the Constitution. Federal prosecutors contend they are criminally obscene.
The prosecution is the first in Southern California by a U.S. Department of Justice task force formed in 2005 after Christian conservative groups appealed to the Bush administration to crack down on smut.
For jurors to determine whether Isaacs' work is obscene, they will view hours of hard-core pornography so degrading that in one film, an actress cries throughout, prosecutors said in court papers.
But if jurors find that any of the four videos at issue in the case have any "literary, scientific or artistic value," the work is not legally obscene, according to a 1973 Supreme Court ruling.
"All they're going to do is turn on a DVD machine and hope the jury is going to be so shocked and disgusted and offended that they're going to throw me in prison," said Isaacs, 57, a native of the Bronx. He said he hopes that jurors will be shocked -- he's a self-described "shock artist" -- but also that they will see artistic value in the work.
The portly defendant, who sports a ponytail and goatee, produced and starred in one of the videos. He contends that the sex in the movie is incidental to the art. It's merely a marketing tool to drive sales of the videos on the Internet, he said.
In a statistic that some may find every bit as shocking as his work, Isaacs said he was selling about 1,000 videos per month at $30 apiece before being raided by the FBI early last year. The number has since dropped to between 700 and 800 per month, but they still generate enough money to pay the rent on a house with a pool in the Hollywood Hills.
Isaacs predicted that many jurors would not be able to stomach viewing the movies, some of which feature acts of bestiality and defecation.
"It's going to be a circus," he said of the upcoming trial. "I think I'd freak out if I had to watch six hours of the stuff."
Jury selection is expected to begin today. Presiding over the trial will be Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Kozinski was assigned the case as part of a rotation in which he and other appeals court judges occasionally oversee criminal trials in addition to deciding appeals.
His involvement in the case may be a stroke of luck for Isaacs. That is because Kozinski is seen as a staunch defender of free speech. When he learned that there were filters banning pornography and other materials from computers in the appeals court's Pasadena offices, he led a successful effort to have the filters removed.
"I did some rabble-rousing about it," Kozinski said in a brief interview last week. He said he was made aware of the issue when a law clerk researching a case was banned from accessing a gay bookstore's website.
"I didn't think the bureaucrats in Washington should decide what the federal judiciary should have access to," the judge said. "I thought that was incredibly arrogant for them to decide on their own."
Kozinski declined to comment on any aspect of the Isaacs case.
Isaacs said he would testify as his own expert witness at trial and planned to lecture jurors on how perceptions of art have changed over the years. There was a time, he said, when the works of authors James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence were called obscene.
The point, Isaacs said, "is do we really want to throw artists in jail in America?"
Kenneth Whitted, the Justice Department prosecutor assigned to the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, declined to be interviewed for this report.
According to the Justice Department's website, the task force "is dedicated exclusively to the protection of America's children and families through the enforcement of our Nation's obscenity laws."
The task force has won convictions in more than a dozen cases, the vast majority resulting from plea bargains, according to case summaries provided by the department. Only a few defendants have elected to fight the charges at trial. Punishment in most cases included some prison time, ranging from one to seven years, as well as stiff fines and forfeiture of proceeds.
At a time when even hard-core pornography is available in major hotels, through cable companies and on the Internet, prosecutors have focused their efforts on particularly outrageous material, often involving sex with animals and defecation.
Most of the cases were brought in relatively conservative areas of the country, five of them in Texas.
Whether jurors in Southern California have more lenient views on obscenity will be tested at Isaacs' trial.
Federal agents raided Isaacs' Koreatown office in January 2007. Isaacs said he was told by authorities that the investigation was initiated after a local person complained, and was eventually turned over to the task force in Washington.
He is now facing charges related to the importation, transportation and distribution of obscene material in connection with four videos he was selling over the Internet, including the one he produced. Isaacs admits to producing that film and to distributing all four.
But he denies that they're obscene.
"That's for the jury to decide," he said.
He said that prosecutors have made several overtures inviting him to take a plea in the case, but that he has refused every time.
Pleading guilty would be admitting that he was just another pornographer, he said.
"If I get convicted and go to prison now," Isaacs said, "I go as an artist."
Americans Support Government Crackdown on Obscenity
NEW YORK, U.S. Newswire, 11/15/05 - More than three out of four (77 percent) adult Americans support the Justice Department's effort to enforce federal obscenity laws, according to results of a survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Morality in Media Nov. 4 to 7. Fewer than one in five (19 percent) of U.S. adults oppose new enforcement efforts. The question asked and overall breakdown of responses are as follows:
"The Supreme Court has held that obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment and that obscenity laws can be enforced against commercial distributors of hardcore pornography. During the past decade, hardcore pornographic videotapes and DVDs, films on pay TV channels, and Internet websites have proliferated. Soon, cell phones that combine voice with pictures will make it even easier to access hardcore pornography. Recently, the Justice Department established a task force to prosecute obscenity crimes, and the FBI recruited additional agents to investigate these crimes. Do you support or oppose this new effort to enforce federal obscenity laws?"
77 percent Total Support
The results come from Harris Interactive's National QuorumTM, a bi-weekly omnibus survey conducted among adults living in the contiguous United States. The survey was conducted among 1,005 adults 18 years of age or older and is representative of the U.S. population. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
There was strong support across all demographic groups examined for increase enforcement, with at least 59 percent in each of the 102 groups examined, including the following groups:
Percentage supporting increased enforcement:
Women, overall: 85 percent
Robert W. Peters, President of Morality in Media, commented:
"Those who defend hardcore pornography, whether in court or in the court of public opinion, point to the proliferation of this vile material as 'proof' either that everyone is viewing it or that people no longer deem hardcore pornography unacceptable. The porn defenders overlook at least three factors.
"First, much if not most hardcore pornography is consumed by a relatively small percentage of males who are addicted to it. Second, just because a person experiments with hardcore pornography does not mean he or she has become a devotee of it, especially when pornographers promote their products relentlessly and by deceptive means. Third, just because a person views some hardcore pornography does not mean he or she finds all of it acceptable or thinks more of it would be a good thing.
"Defenders of hardcore pornography also say the Justice Department efforts to curb the sale of obscene materials is a waste of resources. They overlook the reality that the floodtide of hardcore pornography pouring into our communities and homes is adversely impacting society in various ways, including:
-- Contributing to teen promiscuity
"They also overlook the fact that when obscenity laws are effectively enforced, the resulting fines and forfeitures will offset most if not all of the cost of enforcement."
Headquartered in New York City, MORALITY IN MEDIA works through constitutional means to curb traffic in illegal obscenity. MIM operates the http://www.obscenitycrimes.org website, where citizens can report possible violations of federal Internet obscenity laws, and the National Obscenity Law Center, a resource for prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and legislators.
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