A landmark ballot initiative allowing hundreds of cities and counties in Oregon to formulate their own definitions of what constitutes obscenity based on community values could set a legal precedent for local regulation of the Internet.
The initiative was originally proposed to close a century-old loophole that complicated the state's ability to prosecute child pornographers and purveyors of other offensive sexual material. According to Oregon's constitution, which was created in 1859, "No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right." A vote for the measure would limit free speech protection for obscenity, including child pornography.
But Ballot Measure 31 would allow Oregon's 276 cities and counties to set their own standards for the Internet as well. Such a legal precedent could vastly complicate any regulation of material on the worldwide medium, which until now has been addressed on federal and international levels.
"This measure will open the door wide open to local jurisdictions in Oregon to define obscenities for themselves and we anticipate this will lead to an increase in Internet censorship," said Dave Factor, campaign director for "No Censorship, No on Measure 31."
The real problem is that it is impossible to define what is obscene, he said. Recent court rulings on the Communications Decency Act have stated that, even in the Constitution, the word is vague.
"Different counties will deal with it differently and that's part of the problem because the measure doesn't define obscenity," Factor said.
"Some local jurisdictions will try to write ordinances in their city and county governments. It's also possible that the state government in Oregon would use this opportunity to try to write new obscenity laws," said Factor.
Factor anticipates that this will be a confusing process for the Oregon community, to say the least. "Oregon residents will need to be aware of and concerned about what the local obscene definition is when they access materials from the Internet," he said.