Can a Florida sheriff police obscenity on the Internet?

It wasn’t so long ago that the state of Florida was involved in a high-profile obscenity case when a county sheriff arrested members of the rap group 2 Live Crew for performing obscene material and a music retailer was arrested for selling the group’s album to an undercover police officer. The rappers and the retailer were eventually acquitted, and 2 Live Crew used the infamy to sell more albums.

Now history could well be repeating itself. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd arrested porn site owner Chris Wilson, of Lakeland, Fla., on 300 obscenity-related charges on Oct. 7. Wilson’s site, also has offered soldiers free access to pornography in exchange for gory images of dead Iraqis, a practice first reported on blogs, in the Italian media and on OJR. The obscenity charges do not relate to the gory images, and the U.S. military has said that it hasn’t been able to determine if soldiers actually sent in the photos since the images were posted anonymously on the site.

When I first interviewed Wilson for the Sept. 20 OJR article, he was reluctant to tell me what he did for work outside of running the site. “Everyone asks me that, and they always wonder why I don’t want to answer that,” Wilson said. “I live in a very religious community, unfortunately.”

I asked Wilson why the site was hosted in the Netherlands. “Amsterdam is a little more laid back than the U.S. is with sexual content,” he said. “Being based out of Amsterdam … it’s more or less a business move more than anything else. I don’t get harassed as much because of it. I get a little bit of harassment here in the States. It’s to cut down on my nasty e-mails, pretty much.”

The Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger reported that Wilson was a former police officer and had been investigated since March 2003 for operating porn sites in Polk County. At one point, The Ledger found, Wilson was contacted by a police detective and warned about running pornography sites out of Florida.

Wilson did not return my calls and e-mails for this follow-up story, but his attorney, Larry Walters, told The Ledger that the high number of counts against Wilson was inappropriate and was “an additional, pre-conviction punishment.” Wilson’s family struggled for five days to pay $30,100 bail, before he was released from jail on Oct. 12.

But how can one county in Florida prosecute obscenity cases on the Internet, where obscenity might as well have its own domain suffix? Sheriff Judd told me that his jurisdiction applies to any material that begins and/or ends in his county, regardless if the server or site owner is based in another state or country.

“This might be the first [case we’ve dealt with] where the alleged server is out of the country,” Judd said. “But it makes no difference, because if you fed that server or you could receive information off that server in this county, then it gives us jurisdiction. … Technically I could charge someone in Kansas, if I received child pornography here, obtained a warrant and had him extradited from Kansas and tried here.”

Judd told me Wilson previously ran a porn site called, named after his police academy class number, and at one point had applied for a job as deputy sheriff in Polk County — but he wasn’t hired. Judd said the county has prosecuted cases related to Internet obscenity and hasn’t lost any cases in court, though some defendants have made plea bargains.

The anonymous Cyber Crime Law blogger writes that obscenity cases on the Net are rare due to the proliferation of material online — leading to a select few “special” cases such as this one.

According to the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Miller v. California, for content to be ruled obscene, it must meet the following tests: 1) an average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; 2) the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and 3) the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

While it’s difficult to judge the merits of the case without seeing the material that was seized, the Cyber Crime Law blogger argues the case could well have been pursued because of the notoriety of the gory war photos on the site. The blogger also says the site might have enough serious political value not to be legally considered obscene.

Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said his group hasn’t been contacted by Wilson, but would assist him if he asked for help. The EFF has posted a FAQ on its website to educate bloggers on the law concerning adult material online. Opsahl told me the EFF was worried that obscenity cases were being decided by community standards of the least tolerant places in the country.

“Under current law, the legal question of whether speech is obscene is determined partly by reference to local community standards,” Opsahl wrote me via e-mail. “EFF is concerned that these venue rules permits censorship of speech on the Internet under the standards of the least tolerant community, negating the values that the community standards doctrine was intended to protect — diversity and localism in the marketplace of ideas.”

Judd acknowledged that different communities have different standards. “I have heard descriptions vary from area to area in the country but obscene [in] our community standards goes beyond nude men and women …, ” Judd said. “When we’ve made cases, we have gone much further than what one judge refers to as ‘normal, good old-fashioned sex.’ … We look for outrageous conduct that shocks the conscience of the community. That’s all we bring before the court.”

Wilson’s site is still in operation with pornographic images, videos and the gory war photos. However, after the media attention NTFU received, there has been an uptick in discussions on the site related to the gory images and whether they are indeed helping to show an unedited version of war — or giving U.S. soldiers a bad image abroad. The site’s moderators and Wilson himself have pointed to a special blog on the obscenity charges,, and Wilson has asked supporters to donate money to his legal defense fund.

Investigation stalls in military, media

As for the gory photos on NTFU and other websites, the military said it could not confirm the authenticity of the photos — or that U.S. soldiers had posted them. Army spokesman Paul Boyce told me there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue felony charges.

“If we get specific information, we will certainly look into that as well,” said Boyce. “But at this point, we are pursuing it instead from a more prudent standpoint by reminding soldiers of our policies dealing with the use of the Internet, weblogs, digital photos, personal e-mail, etc.”

I asked Boyce whether he had followed up on my previous report for OJR, which included an e-mail from someone named David Burke, who said he was a soldier in Iraq and has posted on NTFU under the screen name “diescreaming.” Boyce took note of the information and told me the Army would check into it.

But critics of NTFU’s gory photos and the possible involvement of soldiers were doubtful that the Pentagon was putting much effort into the internal investigation. Ibrahim Hooper is the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which helped bring the gore-for-porn story to wider attention by sending an open letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Hooper told me he was disappointed with the Army’s investigation.

“[The Pentagon] decided to end whatever efforts they had because they said they hadn’t found any evidence that military personnel were involved — even though if you went to the site, somebody sent me one of the images where the person’s name and unit were clearly indicated in the photograph,” Hooper said. “All we can do is bring these things to the attention of the Pentagon; we can’t force them to do it. If they want to drop it at that point without having really gone into it, then that’s their choice. We stated at the time that we thought it was premature. There couldn’t possibly have been a full investigation in the time that was allotted and it was sending a negative message.”

Meanwhile, rank-and-file soldiers, Bush administration supporters and military bloggers have been largely silent on the issue, perhaps preferring not to fuel any possible scandal. Liberal blogger John Aravosis, conversely, has been stoking the flames by running photos taken from NTFU, with soldiers visible and gory parts censored. When the military said it couldn’t make felony convictions, Aravosis was livid.

“What exactly HAS the military done to get to the bottom of this?” Aravosis wrote. “They launched an investigation that lasted, apparently, a matter of hours. And now they tell us there’s nothing they can do, and nothing they’re going to do, about the outright racist abuse of Muslims by U.S. troops.”

While the military has been pretty silent on details of its investigations, the mainstream media, too, has tailed off quickly in covering the site and the gory photos. When they finally started paying attention to the story, the media just quickly repeated the basic details, noted the closing of the military investigation and barely any did investigative work of their own.

Bryan Bender, national security and foreign affairs reporter for The Boston Globe, wrote one of the more detailed reports on NTFU, and found that the military was indeed tightening guidelines of electronic media use by soldiers. But Bender hasn’t returned to the subject in The Globe yet because he’s had trouble verifying that the gory photos online came from U.S. soldiers in Iraq, he said.

“I am pursuing the story to determine if soldiers were involved in taking the photos and to figure out if similar photos floating around out there are also the work of U.S. servicemen and women,” Bender told me via e-mail. “I have come across quite a few on the Internet purported to be of dead Iraqis — and of U.S. troops as well. I haven’t made much headway yet, but I agree it warrants continuing attention by the media. The main hurdles are 1) figuring out if the photos are legit and 2) who took them. Some of them, quite frankly, look like they could be staged. Others appear real, but as you well know, anyone can post things on the Internet. Tracking where they originated from is not easy.”

How do soldiers feel?

Due to the sensitive nature of the website and subject matter, U.S. soldiers I contacted would not go on record for this story, even to denounce the site’s practice of posting gory photos.

One popular military blogger, who only goes by the pseudonym American Soldier, said he doesn’t believe the Army can stop soldiers from sending in these types of kill shots. “They can put out blanket warnings of UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] violations and then leave it at that,” he told me via e-mail. “The Army is all about complying but moves on and expects the rules to just be followed.”

I asked American Soldier if he thought it was a double standard when U.S. officials criticize Al Jazeera for running video of captured or dead American GIs while U.S. soldiers are possibly posting photos of dead Iraqis and celebrating the kills.

“I don’t give a fuck about dead terrorists,” he said. “They are fanatics fighting for a crazy cause. The more dead, the merrier. That’s what they want to be anyway. They are martyrs and they don’t care who they kill. Women, children, old people. There are a million differences between displaying American heroes who have fallen and these pieces of shit terrorists. So no, I don’t think anything is wrong with Americans posting pictures. Al Jazeera is nothing but a terrorist news MSM. … The Army really wants to control soldiers in general. They HATE the milblog sensation. They want to silence us.”

Another soldier who served in Iraq recently would only talk to me on condition of anonymity. This soldier thought the current generation of servicemen and women was much more numb to violence and had less qualms about exposing the world to what was happening at war.

“I think we’re desensitized now,” the soldier said in a telephone interview. “There were plenty of guys in Vietnam who took gory photos like that — and a lot of them have them now — but I don’t think a lot of them would expose them. At the time, when I was in Iraq, I had plenty of photos like that. You don’t know why. In Iraq, everyone’s pulling out digital cameras; it’s like a Kodak moment. Over there, you’re taking pictures of it and not really thinking that much of it. Then you come back and it sinks in. When you come back to normal life, you think, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe I did that.’ ”

This soldier thinks NTFU has been a PR nightmare for the Army, and thinks the military could easily figure out who shot the pictures and posted them online. But the soldier has little sympathy for Chris Wilson.

“This guy is waving the flag and the First Amendment, and how he’s supporting the troops,” the soldier said. “Bull-fucking-shit, dude. You’re cashing in on this. This is the best publicity stunt for his site ever. He’s probably dragged so much traffic to his site. He’s using these soldiers for his own good, for his own site. These soldiers are such fucking idiots, being used by this guy.”

While Wilson wouldn’t comment on his site’s aims, he has posted a quote on every page of the site, taken from the 1995 movie “The American President”:

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

* * *

Media Reaction to NTFU

“Horrifying? Oh, yeah. Horrifying but invaluable, because these pictures show a side of the Iraq war the American public doesn’t care to see and from which it’s been meticulously shielded. We’re spared the sight of flag-draped coffins arriving weekly to hometowns across the country even though we’re deluged with newscasts painting a shiny picture of soldiers fraternizing with Iraqi children. Death has effectively been eliminated from our media’s war coverage, as if protracted combat doesn’t involve killing, and killing isn’t gory, and the personalities of people who have to do the killing don’t eventually start warping in the most unpleasant ways.

“The photos posted on NowThatsF — strip off the blinders. Those brains splattered across a car’s dashboard? Not your usual human-interest story. The mocking commentary by the enlisted guys supplying the photos? Not so heroic. Together, they paint a picture of war as a dehumanizing hell, sans political commentary or analysis. Welcome to Operation Iraqi Freedom.” — Neva Chonin, San Francisco Chronicle, in Porn Wars, Part II

“The dissemination of imagistic truth from America’s involvement in the Middle East has been a long time coming, and, while the government might use the pornographic content of NTFU as a distraction, one must be cognizant of perhaps a more realistic motive: corralling American soldiers and closing the eyes of the American public. … The grotesque becomes something like pathos, intriguing our sympathies and altering our perceptions — the images of this war, previously censored but now presented on sites like NTFU, will most certainly redefine our gaze. With or without pants, the truth is making its way around the world fringed with photography, pornography, or, in the age of digital communication, warnography.” — Casey N. Cep, Harvard Crimson, in Warnography’s Visceral Allure

“These images produce immediate, visceral responses. That’s why they are so threatening to the authorities. They destroy the moment of rational detachment that arises when we ask, ‘Is this war (and implicitly, war in general) justified?’ … Show someone a high resolution, close-up picture of a broken corpse, where no limb is where you expect it to be. Does it matter if there are two bodies or one? If they are insurgents or soldiers? If it is war or murder? We feel an identical response no matter what the context. …

“What Wilson is doing is both excessive and necessary. As our society grows more desensitized to violence, the images that can jolt us out of our complacent and superficial posturing must become correspondingly more severe. Don’t support our troops; support our pornographers instead.” — Ken Tran, Daily Texan, in Graphic Photos Have a Purpose

“If there’s any merit to this cause [the FBI’s war on porn], then the obscenity contained on Wilson’s website should undoubtedly be one of the foremost targets. After all, photographs of naked adults engaging in sexual activity are one thing; images of bodies missing heads or organs splayed in the street are quite another. While The Chronicle defended the rights granted by the First Amendment just last week, those freedoms reach their limits in this case, being at odds with the international law established in the Geneva Conventions.

“If the federal government deems the standard version of pornography to be criminal activity, then there is no justifiable reason that the content on Chris Wilson’s website wouldn’t be considered equally offensive — if not a more dangerous form of public corruption. The more time that soldiers are allowed to continue submitting these images and their comments on a site accessible by the global community, the more we have to wonder just how out of order our priorities really are.” — editorial in Columbia College Chronicle, titled The new pornography

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. How can I get to the Wilson’s site?