An expert in obscenity law tells TPMmuckraker that the statute being used to prosecute South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Alvin Greene for allegedly showing a college student porn is on the books in every state but is almost never enforced.
As media outlets have repeated again and again in the coverage of Greene’s mystery Senate candidacy, he was charged in November with disseminating, procuring, or promoting obscene material — a felony. (See court documents here.) As University of South Carolina student Camille McCoy, 19, described the incident in an interview on Fox Friday, Greene allegedly showed her pornographic images on a computer (of “woman-on-man porn, pretty much sex I guess”) at a university computer lab, and then remarked, “Let’s go to your room now.”
But according to Chris Hansen, senior national staff counsel at the ACLU, prosecutions involving the obscenity law that Greene is being charged under are exceedingly rare.
“Every state and the federal government have obscenity statutes, and they all read pretty much the same,” he says. “It is very rarely enforced anywhere.”
The law in the Greene case is section 16-15-0305, (A)(3) of the South Carolina code. It is a crime if a person “publishes, exhibits, or otherwise makes available anything obscene to any group or individual.”
But Hansen says that the federal government, which has a similar law on the books, would not prosecute Greene if the images he allegedly showed McCoy depicted “normal heterosexual sex.” Hansen says that in fact, federal obscenity cases are so rare that there have only been a dozen or so in the last decade — reserved for categories like bestiality and extreme violence.
But here’s the catch: obscenity laws are applied differently in different states because, as the South Carolina statute puts it, the definition of obscenity is based on “contemporary community standards.” For material to be legally obscene, it must fit three categories based on contemporary community standards: it must be “patently offensive;” it must appeal “to the prurient interest in sex;” and it must “lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
It’s not clear if obscenity charges are more common in South Carolina than they are on the federal level — though obscenity is not even a category in the state’s annual crime statistics report.
The charge against Greene is still pending. An affidavit filed in court alleges that Greene “did commit the crime of [d]isseminating, procuring or promoting obscenity because the defendant did intentionally show obscene photographs from a website to the victim, Camille McCoy, without her consent.”
It’s not completely clear where the charge stands, but Edith White, owner of ABC Bonding — which put up $5,000 bail for Greene for a $500 fee — said her records show court dates in the case on December 7, April 1, and April 26. She said that Greene checks in with the company weekly, and the next court date is scheduled for July 12.
Here’s a clip of the interview with McCoy and her mother from Fox Friday: