Moving forward | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

It will be up to a Western Pennsylvania jury to decide whether the written works of a 55-year-old Donora woman are obscene.

On Aug. 30, Judge Joy Flowers Conti declined to dismiss obscenity charges against Karen Fletcher, who formerly operated a text-only Web site. Fletcher is accused of charging 29 customers roughly $10 each for access to the site, whose offerings included six stories depicting the rape, torture and murder of young children.

Fletcher's attorneys contend that since the stories are fictional and no child was actually harmed, Fletcher is being charged with a thought crime. "Text is as close to the process of thought as you can get," attorney Jerome Mooney argued. "The First Amendment doesn't mean much if [writings] have to be hidden under the mattress."

Mooney also argued that the legal definition of obscenity relies partly on whether material violated community standards -- and that in the borderless world of the Internet, such standards are impossible to determine.

"If I'm opening a store in Pittsburgh, I make myself aware of the laws and the standards in the community," Mooney says. "When you open up a store on the Internet, you have no idea what part of the world your consumer is now located in."

Federal prosecutor Stephen Kaufman, however, countered that Fletcher was free to share her stories with friends and neighbors. "She's being prosecuted because of the commercial sale of stories that the grand jury has alleged to be obscene," Kaufman said. Conti, meanwhile, deemed the "community standards" argument moot as a result of a 2005 federal-court ruling involving a federal case against Extreme Associates, which sold hardcore pornography over the Internet.

In that case, which was also filed by the office of Western Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, federal Judge Gary Lancaster agreed that obscenity laws couldn't be applied to the Internet. However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Lancaster, noting that several United States Supreme Court decisions had previously upheld obscenity laws.

Even so, those precedents were set long before the advent of the Internet, and it's likely that a guilty verdict in either the Fletcher or the Extreme Associates case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, so it can reconsider the issue.

For now, though, Fletcher will apparently be held to the community standards of 12 jurors from Western Pennsylvania. And Kaufman contended that no other community matters. Arguing that there should be a nationwide obscenity standard, or a separate standard for self-selecting online communities "is an attempt to make a prosecution unworkable," Kaufman said. Fletcher "is a citizen of this district, and that's the standard that should be used."

A trial date has not yet been set.

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