Dirty Words | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Dirty Words

Could successful prosecution of written stories -- even "vile" ones -- set a dangerous precedent?

Karen Fletcher is a 53-year-old former Web-site operator from Donora. Her online writings, which were located at Redrosestories.com, contained dark, brutal portrayals of sexual violence against children, though she says the stories are fictional, and the site contains no images. She had exactly 29 subscribers.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the creators of the extremely popular, award-winning television show South Park. Their cartoon children often go through off-color adventures, including at least five episodes that dealt with -- and even depicted -- pedophilia. It is broadcast weekly on Comedy Central to millions of homes.

But what's the biggest difference between the two? Fletcher has been charged by U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan for allegedly violating federal anti-obscenity law -- the first obscenity prosecution since 1973 dealing strictly with the written word.

"This case is not only important, it's dangerous," says Fletcher's attorney, Lawrence Walters, a nationally known First Amendment lawyer.

"If this prosecution of a strictly fictional, written work is successful," he says, "it will have a chilling effect on authors all across this country. They're all going to wonder, 'Am I next on the hit list?'"

Well, maybe not every author is going to wonder. Fletcher's writings have not yet been made part of any public record, and she closed the Web site shortly after her home was raided by federal officials last year. But by all accounts, the material is extreme -- not the sort of thing anyone is likely to confuse with a literary work like Nabokov's Lolita. One story Fletcher posted, for example, describes the rape of an infant.

While the stories have not been made part of the public record, they have been described in filings both by Buchanan and Walters. In announcing the indictment last year, Buchanan called the stories "vile."

In court filings, Fletcher describes herself as "socially reclusive" and says she was sexually abused as a child. Her writings, she says in an affidavit, became a form of therapy.

"The one thing that I found helped me was to write stories," Fletcher writes in an affidavit. Fletcher's stories always contained a "monster," or abuser, and a victim, usually a child. "I may still be afraid of the monsters, but at least in the stories, they prey on someone else, not me."

Fletcher said she kept her writings private until she discovered that users were posting their writings on an online bulletin board. She first posted her writings and said she found acceptance from people who read them. People who were "reclusive and damaged like me."

Fletcher began her Web site as a way to control access to the materials and so others could share their own stories unedited. Also, Fletcher says she kept track of all user Internet addresses, and if anyone tried to submit stories that were nonfiction, she claims, she turned that information over to the FBI. There is no evidence to support this claim, however.

Even the descriptions of Fletcher's writings in Walters' brief are disturbing. All of the stories depict the rape and torture of children. The following is Walters' description of a story entitled "4Men2"

"The story depicts the tale of a husband and wife, apparently on vacation at a third-world, tropical destination. ... The author places the reader in the context of a small, rustic cabin set in a society where families will pawn their young children to visiting Westerners for sexual uses. The story brings the reader inside the head of these two individuals, whose objective is to sexually use and abuse their five-year-old female victim. Again, the author also allows the reader to experience the thoughts and pain from the victim's perspective."

"Accordingly," Walters writes, "there is both literary and historical context and value present within this story."

Most importantly, says Fletcher's attorney, there were never any pictures posted on the site, and no evidence that any actual children were harmed. Buchanan, they contend, is trying to prosecute a thought crime.

"... All that exists is the pen, the hand and the mind of creator of imaginative, textual works."

Walters also talks about other entertainment outlets that have dealt with pedophilia. He lists several written works, including A Clockwork Orange, The Night Listener and The Apprentice -- the latter a novel by Scooter Libby, the former aide to Vice President Cheney -- as examples of literature that have not led to indictments. A passage from Libby's book quoted in the brief includes:

"At age of ten [sic] the madam put the child in a cage with a bear trained to couple with young girls so the girls would be frigid and not fall in love with their patrons. They fed her through the bars and aroused the bear with a stick when it seemed to lose interest. Groups of men paid to watch."

Continues Walters: "Scooter Libby, of course, has never been indicted for the imagery contained within The Apprentice."

Several pages of Walters' 81-page motion also deal with South Park. Several episodes are mentioned, including one where Eric Cartman, one of the main characters, joins the North American Man Boy Love Association. In another, Cartman plays a prank on a classmate by putting his penis in his mouth. Still another involves a 5-year-old character having a sexual relationship with his teacher; when she gets bail at the end of the episode, student and teacher run off together.

"The show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have been accepted into mainstream entertainment and, rather than being subjected to prosecution ... have been the recipients of national awards for quality in arts and entertainment," writes Walters. "Meanwhile, Karen Fletcher is subjected to federal obscenity prosecution for comparable works involving no visualizations."

The case against Fletcher is the second active obscenity case in the Western District of Pennsylvania, where U.S. Attorney Buchanan has been toeing a conservative line. During the recent investigation of U.S. attorney firings, the House Judiciary Committee requested to speak with Buchanan amid reports that she may have been consulted when the names of the eight recently fired attorneys were prepared.

Buchanan has also filed obscenity charges against Extreme Associates, whose hardcore pornography features scenes of simulated rape and murder.

According to Robert Richards, a professor and co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University, the Bush administration made prosecuting obscenity a priority when it first took power in 2001. During the eight-year Clinton administration, there were no such cases filed. Even now, he says, only one other federal obscenity case is currently pending anywhere else in the country.

Although Buchanan did not return calls seeking comment for this story, she expressed her position on Fletcher's case after the indictment. In addition, she has written countless briefs in the Extreme Associates case and has battled in the appellate court to make sure the prosecution continues, even after it was originally dismissed by U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster. She has not yet filed a brief responding to Walters' motion to dismiss.

"I can't imagine why anyone would want to write or read stories involving the rape and torture of children," Buchanan was quoted as saying in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last fall. "The law does not prohibit an individual from thinking or writing about their own thoughts within their own home. But when they go beyond that, and distribute that through interstate commerce, then they violate the law."

Walters says Fletcher's writings do not fulfill the three-pronged test established by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether something rises to the level of obscenity. The three determinations are:

* Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;

* Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law;

* Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary and/or artistic, political or scientific value.

"Since the inception of the Miller test, no written work has ever been prosecuted," Walters says. "It always allowed for the possibility that a written work could be included, but I think the fact that there hasn't been one is a good indication that this cannot be and is not obscene."

Buchanan, however, has disagreed. The fact that the stories were ficticious is irrelevant, Buchanan said last fall.

"Whatever the genesis of the stories are is irrelevant to the federal violation," she was reported as saying in the P-G. "This material rises to the level of obscenity, and it is dangerous. Material of this type is the kind that emboldens individuals who have an interest in sexually exploiting children."

Richards, of Penn State, is not convinced. "Wasting taxpayer money to go after someone portraying a fantasy -- whether in visual or written form -- has gone well past its usefulness," he says.

In the Internet age, Richards says, it's "hard to sell a jury on obscenity charges," especially those based only on written material. But in Fletcher's case, he says, "I think the government found a story that wraps children into fantasy writing, and they think that's going to be an easier sell to a jury. They hope that a jury will find this so vile that they'll make a moral decision and convict."

Says Richards, "Cases like this one and the Extreme Associates case may very well serve as a litmus test for the government to see how far they can take this law."

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