Archive for Sunday, August 31, 2008

Writings pose moral and legal dilemma

August 31, 2008


You can't blame Karen Fletcher for deciding not to fight.

Had she lost, she faced the possibility of five years in prison. Under the plea agreement she accepted in early August, she got six months of house arrest, five years on probation and a $1,000 fine. But if the agreement allows Fletcher, of Donora, Pa., to avoid the more onerous punishment, it also allows us to avoid what surely would have been a violent collision between morality and the Constitution.

Karen Fletcher is a pornographer. And not just any old pornographer: the 56-year-old woman specializes in the rape, torture and murder of children. Indeed, children as young as infancy.

Here's the twist: no children were hurt by - or even involved with - Fletcher's pornography. She was prosecuted under federal obscenity statutes for writing "fiction" depicting the violent abuse of children. Fletcher has said the stories were her way of coping with sexual abuse she herself suffered as a child, a claim somewhat undercut by the fact that she was profiting from her work to the tune of 30 subscribers paying $10 a month to read the stories on her Web site.

All of which leaves me feeling ... irresolute.

On the one hand, you have a woman doing a repellent thing with no discernible social value. By all available evidence, Fletcher's imagination is a garbage barge ripening under the sun. The world of arts and letters - the world, period - is not diminished by the loss of her work.

On the other hand, you have a writer prosecuted - in America! - for something she wrote. That demands a ruminative pause if not, indeed, a full stop.

And here, I was going to draw a distinction between words and pictures, to say that Fletcher's sin, awful as it was, involved "only" words, not graphic, stomach-churning images. But that would have been a hypocritical cop-out from someone who makes his living with "only" words and has spent years proselytizing for their power. So let us concede: Words have weight.

No, the question here is not whether Fletcher's work is suitably repugnant, but whether the government has a role in regulating it or anything else whose production does not cause injury. If her stories did not harm any children, does the government have a compelling need to restrict them?

I don't know that it does.

You may well disagree, and you'd have ample ground to do so. But you'd want to be careful that ground did not become the proverbial slippery slope. If offensiveness alone is reason enough for government to abridge the right of free expression, then what protects Stephen King, whose novel "Pet Sematary" includes the grisly desecration of a child's grave? Or Vladimir Nabokov, whose novel "Lolita" depicts a middle-age man's sexual obsession with an adolescent girl? Or, indeed, any writer whose work travels dark paths, sheds light on dank and shadowed corners of human existence?

What is the line where obscenity ends and art begins? And who gets to say?

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said of pornography that he could not define it with legal exactitude, "but I know it when I see it." Many of us would doubtless agree with him.

But that standard, which works reasonably well among individuals, has potential to be a cudgel in the hands of government, particularly a government prone to extraordinary and even extralegal means of enforcing its vision of morality. So the prosecution of Karen Fletcher is a discomfiting thing.

I make no case for her as a great artist. My concern is for tomorrow's great - or not so great - artist whose work deals in the repugnant and the disgusting. To be sanguine about his freedom and Fletcher's fate requires that one trust government to understand and respect the difference.

And I, for one, do not.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


dandelion 9 years, 6 months ago

STRS, She's already been sentenced. It's a little late to rush to her side, isn't it?

geekin_topekan 9 years, 6 months ago

Brent,correct me if I am not reading you right.Are you saying that she should be censored now before her musing and others like it become accepted in our daily lives,maybe even practiced?

Paul R Getto 9 years, 6 months ago

An interesting legal dilemma. The subject is vile, but examples abound in literature. Frank Zappa asked, "Who are the thought police."

imastinker 9 years, 6 months ago

I find her disgusting and horrible, but I have to agree with Leonard. She is not hurting anyone, at least directly. Speech should be protected, and not just political speech.

SettingTheRecordStraight 9 years, 6 months ago

Surely the ACLU will rush to her side. The ACLU looooooves smut like this.

dandelion 9 years, 6 months ago

I agree that this woman is vile and disgusting, but I also find Phleps' signs vile and disgusting. His free speech is somehow protected however. I just don't see the difference. His signs encourage violence. Shouldn't charges be brought against him?Off the main subject, why doesn't this woman get help to deal with her past abuse, instead of feeding those who get off on abuse?

Brent Garner 9 years, 6 months ago

The error here is in believing that the 1st Amendment protects all speech. It does not. The Founding Fathers clearly intended for it to protect pollitical speech only. We have, erroneously, over the years expanded it to include speech that is offensive to the extreme. Speech that would have formerly gotten one shunned for its use due to vulgarity, crudeness, profaneness, we are now told we must accept and tolerate. This has led to a coarsening of our culture and a degradation of values. For example. When I was a child, no one would refer to a woman by any of a long list of perjorative words which I cannot even print here. One starts with "B", another with "S", and another with "W". To do so, particularly in public, would be to risk a physical confrontation and potentially violence. It would, as a minimum, earn one the reputation of being of limited intelligence, low morals, etc. Thus, it was not done. But, today, these words and others are common among us, and the culture has grown tolerant of music, movies, books that depict the physical degradation of women. This is but one example. There are others.So, I am sorry Mr. Pitts, but I have little problem with punishing this writer of things vile and repugnant. I am more saddened that her punishment was not more severe.

dandelion 9 years, 6 months ago

I'm not a lawyer, but I don't think they can appeal after accepting a plea bargain.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 6 months ago

Frank Zappa asked, "Who are the thought police."====================He also asked, "What's the ugliest part of your body?"A- "I think it's your mind."

dandelion 9 years, 6 months ago

And can someone tell me how Phelp's signs "Kill Fags" is acceptable political speech? How is it anymore acceptable that the smut this woman put out?

Brent Garner 9 years, 6 months ago

Geekin, Beobachter:If you read the writings of our fouinding fathers it would help you understand what they meant by "freedom of speech". It was never intended to protect vile, repugnant speech but political speech. The Founders were trying to prevent something that happened in England when a King didn't like you saying bad things about him or disagreeing with him. They never meant for vulgarity and crassness to be defended by the term "freedom of speech". Further, if we take your positions as you intend them, why do we tolerate a law which makes it illegal to yell "FIRE" in a crowded theater? As for censorship, what I wish would happen is that my fellow citizens would have the moral and personal decency to 1)refuse to engage in such vulgarity and crassness, 2) refuse to purchase materials that promulgate such vulgarity and crassness, 3) be willing to tell those around them that they would prefer that, in their presence, vulgarity and crassness not be practiced. One cannot argue that tolerating such demeaning and repugnant language and conduct does not lead to a cheapening of human life, and particularly women as they seem to be the primary targets of such things.

Orwell 9 years, 6 months ago

Brent:Your last paragraph suggests the appropriate remedy individual, rather than government, response. Each of us remains free to apply "personal decency" to any unsavory exercise of free speech.I share Pitts's concern for governmental exercise of power in response to words, although I can appreciate a case for the suggestion that Fletcher's work is close to your "fire" exception the likelihood that the communication itself causes imminent harm without offsetting benefit.The real difficulty lies in giving the government the power to decide which speech is subject to punishment. I'd trust some individuals with that authority more than others (like the current crowd, as Pitts suggests) who use any and all government power to advance a political agenda. The problem is that we don't set different limits for different officeholders, so we must err on the side of individual liberty to protect ourselves from abusive and selective enforcement. That doesn't prevent any individual or group from speaking out (as you've done here) against offensive exercise of the protected right.

denak 9 years, 6 months ago

The mark of a free society is that, sometimes, we do have to tolerate, for better or for worse, things that are disgusting as long as they don't cause harm.Personally, I think her excuse, that her writings are helping her with past abuse, is a bunch of hooey. I think she is just saying that so that she doesn't look worst than she already does.She may in fact might have been abused but I don't believe that this is the best form of therapy.In my opinon, the woman is disgusting and is on the same level of those "authors" who write "how to commit the perfect crime" books knowing that those who read these books get informatino on how to kill from it. Both Fletcher and those authors know people will use their information to hurt, but they hide behind the 1st amendment so they can deny blame.Dena

bondmen 9 years, 6 months ago

If children are just the products of animal reproduction and evolved natural biological materials, then why not accept and follow Princeton University professor Peter Singer's prescriptions about how to properly care for and handle young children? Furthermore, what of it if adults want to practice their perverted sexuality on these smaller, weaker, less evolved human forms which are just the byproduct of uncontrolled adolescent/adult sexual gratification?Whatever happened to the principle of survival of the fittest and the great good created in the resulting natural selection? Are not these central to human evolution and as such should not be interrupted or interfered with by outsiders with other ideas?

jonas 9 years, 6 months ago

bondmen: If people are nothing more than the product of a deity so twisted and deranged as to sacrifice his own son horribly for no reason at all, then why don't we follow the actions established by the clergy and just sexually abuse all children that we get our dirty little hands on? Funny how little work it takes to totally misrepresent something and take it in an unjustified direction, ne? At least in my case the ignorance is only feigned.

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