On Oct. 7, the Polk County Sheriff's Office arrested Chris Wilson, 27, and charged him on 301 counts of possessing and distributing obscenity. Theoretically the charges could net Wilson, a former Eagle Lake police officer, 305 years in prison. As of this writing Wilson is in a Polk County jail cell, with his bond set at $151,000.
Wilson's website, www.nowthatsfuckedup.com, allows amateur pornographers to post sexual images of themselves and their partners for all the world or at least Wilson's paid subscribers to see. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd thinks that crosses the line.
"It is the most horrific, vile, perverted sexual conduct," Judd told the Orlando Sentinel. "It is as vile, as perverted, as non-normal sexual conduct, which rises to the level of obscenity, as we've ever investigated."
Perhaps Judd doesn't get out much. According to the probable cause report (which you can download online here), Wilson's arrest is based on pictures of things like a man having anal sex with a woman, a woman fellating a man while another woman masturbates him, and a man ejaculating on a woman's face. Not family fare, but run-of-the-mill smut by Internet standards, available at thousands and thousands of websites. And it's the basis of the case against Wilson.
Of course, there's more to the story. As I reported last week, Wilson's site allows American soldiers to post ghastly images of war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan in exchange for free access to the site. The Army wasn't too thrilled with the arrangement, especially when it generated a media firestorm.
What follows is a conversation with Wilson's lawyer, Lawrence Walters.
OW: You've got a history of battling Polk County over adult entertainment.
Walters: I do. I started representing adult bookstores and video stores in Polk County maybe 10 years ago. … Essentially, what's happened in Polk County and there's been a number of federal lawsuits filed against Polk County alleging this very thing is that they use the criminal laws for an improper purpose. That purpose is to censor erotic speech, erotic entertainment, from the county, to threaten people with prosecution unless they agree to go away, close up, go out of business, move out of town, whatever it takes to silence this form of speech.
OW: You told me earlier that the cops think they're doing the Lord's work.
Walters: Yes. They truly believe that this is a sin, that people should not be engaging in this kind of business. … I know the group, I know what they're thinking. This is a major metropolitan area of Florida. It's sandwiched in between Tampa and Orlando but for whatever reason, they believe that they're different than the rest of the state of Florida in that their community standards are different. And worse than that, they believe that they can impose their version of community standards what the sheriff believes are the community standards on the rest of the county, and the rest of the world now with the Internet prosecutions. They're trying to censor websites that are available globally for the rest of the world.
OW: I see two problems with the case. The first is that the server is located in Amsterdam, and the second is that this is a paid site, and that would seem to fall under the interstate commerce clause of federal law. How do those factors affect Polk County's ability to prosecute online "obscenity" in your view?
Walters: This case is going to raise a number of fascinating legal issues, and that's one of them. How can a county government, a county sheriff, attempt to regulate what appears on a global medium like the Internet? Under well-established principles of federal law … the federal government, not state government, has sole jurisdiction over national as well as international communications venues like the Internet. There have already been six or seven cases now that have recognized that states cannot attempt to pass regulations on Internet communications. There has not been a case involving use of the obscenity laws, which is going to be … an opportunity for new precedent to be set. This is a very important case because it deals with the ability of a small county to set standards for the entire Internet. And I would suggest that their attempt to do that is unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment.
OW: What's so bad about this site compared to all the other porn sites in the world? Sheriff Judd said this is the most "perverted, vile" conduct he's ever seen. Does that mean he saw people doing it doggy-style?
Walters: Well, we don't know what the images they've selected for prosecution depict. No. 1, I would suggest … `that` there is nothing different on this site as compared to the hundreds of thousands of other adult-oriented sites out there, but for the fact that these are user-submitted pictures. Keep in mind that Chris Wilson didn't publish anything. He didn't select any images for publication. … This is created by the users. It's created by people in the world, people all over the world. These people have chosen to submit pictures of their activities, whether they are sexual in nature, whether they are war-oriented, whether they're everyday activities. For Polk County to claim that these images are obscene is essentially saying that the human condition is obscene. … You can try to claim that this is obscene all you want, but this is the world that we live in. Sooner or later, Polk County's going to have to come to terms with it.
OW: The state attorney's office says it was investigating Wilson long before the media attention. Frankly, I find that hard to believe.
Walters: Well, you know, once I have subpoena power and I can start sitting people down for depositions, I'm going to start asking a lot of questions about what the origin of the investigation was and who it is that complained about this to justify the initiation of criminal charges. … What you've got here is, you've got the military getting upset about the fact that soldiers are sending in graphic images depicting the war in Iraq. This doesn't comport with the Bush administration's view of how the war should be reported and how it should be depicted. And then the next thing you have is Chris Wilson sitting in jail. I don't know that the two are connected. Any reasonable person would say something sounds fishy here, and we intend to investigate it. I think it's very telling that the sheriff has stated in the media that they are sharing information with the military. That raises the question, was this really an effort to get information from Chris' records to share with the military about which soldiers were submitting these images? I think that's a reasonable suspicion as well, and we're going to investigate all of it.
OW: Do you think the Army leaned on Polk County to bust Chris Wilson? And do you think he would be in jail if he didn't have pictures of dead Iraqis on his website?
Walters: Let me put it this way. There are ostensibly a million other adult websites out there that have pictures similar to Chris Wilson's, yet Chris Wilson is the only one in jail. The only thing different about his site is that there are also pictures of the war in Iraq. I can't speculate, because I don't have proof that the military has forced this investigation. But I would suggest that it looks awfully strange. The connections appear to be more than coincidental. And if that is the case, we're dealing with one of the worst civil rights violations of our time. Everybody who depends on free speech, from journalists to TV reporters to magazine editors to everybody in the world that would like to say something that the Bush administration doesn't approve of, should be concerned about this prosecution.
OW: Chris Wilson is still in jail?
Walters: Yeah. And complicating that is the fact that they've written these as 300 separate charges requiring 300 separate bonds to make it extremely difficult to get a bond. And they arrested him on a Friday night before a holiday weekend `Columbus Day`, and all the banks are closed today, and everything they've done has made it more difficult for our client to get out. The family is working on that currently.
OW: What's your next step?
Walters: I don't telegraph my punches. But I can also tell you that I don't walk down the traditional line when it comes to defending cases. I take this case very seriously. I think it has the potential for being the next Pentagon Papers, `a` United States Supreme Court case. And we will aggressively defend it and that's all I can say at this point. But stay tuned. It's going to be an interesting case to follow.