Jacob Sullum
For a guy who hates pornography, Phil Burress seems to know an awful lot about it. In a recent story about his campaign to eliminate "adult" movies from hotels across America, USA Today reported: "Hotel room pay-per-view offerings have become more graphic in recent years, showing close-ups of all manner of sex acts, Burress says." I guess keeping up on the latest porn offerings at the Marriott is part of Burress' job as president of the Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values. But there was a time when his interest in smut was not limited to opposition research. "When I was 14 years old," Burress said on CNN the other day, "I was exposed to pornography on the way to school one morning, and for me, it led into an addiction that lasted more than 25 years. So I know about the harms of pornography and what it can do to a young child and their perception toward women." Burress makes it sound as if porn were a virus or a toxic chemical, something people are "exposed to" without their knowledge or participation. But if he was like most 14-year-olds, it could not have taken much coaxing to get him to look. There are laws against selling sexually explicit material to minors mainly because they're eager to see it, not because adults are keen to foist it upon them. Burress obscures this reality further by calling a 14-year-old adolescent "a young child," which is a bit of a stretch. In any case, he was surely old enough to be held responsible for his actions by the time he was a 39-year-old smut junkie. By his telling, however, pornography cast a spell on him that he could not break for a quarter of a century. No wonder he wants to protect bored and tired business travelers from exposure to dirty movies. But the rest of us should hesitate before endorsing the principle that the world must be cleansed of temptation for the sake of those with weak resistance. Next, alcoholics will be demanding that hotels remove their mini-bars. Burress claims he is doing a public service. "We're going to put on a full-court press," he told USA Today, "to educate people that hotels are distributing hard-core pornography." I think the secret may be out. Porn typically accounts for 50 percent or more of a hotel's pay-per-view sales, bringing in something like half a billion dollars a year in the United States. Not surprisingly, the people who watch these movies do not usually go on national television to defend their tastes. But they are speaking loudly and clearly with their wallets. Be that as it may, Burress and his allies certainly have a right to express their outrage, complain to hotels and try to shame them into dropping their most lucrative genre of in-room entertainment. But the opponents of hotel-room porn do not stop at moral suasion; they are using force to get their way. Three hotels in the Cincinnati area pulled their x-rated fare after Burress' group convinced local prosecutors to threaten them with obscenity charges. Now, a coalition of anti-porn groups wants the Justice Department to intimidate hotels across the country into following suit. It's not clear that prosecutors could actually win such cases, even in Cincinnati: Last year, the owner of a Cincinnati store that sells porn videos was acquitted of obscenity charges. But few hotels will be willing to risk the negative publicity of a trial. Burress insists the government is not trespassing on anyone's privacy when it dictates what people are allowed to watch in hotel rooms -- or, for that matter, in their own homes, since he also wants to stop video stores, cable companies, satellite systems and Web-site operators from offering pornography. He says he just wants to block distribution; possession is another matter. This is not a distinction that Burress invented. As he is quick to note, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Americans have a right to watch what they want in private, even if a local jury might consider it obscene. It's just that no one has a right to provide them with such material. This is like saying you have a right to keep and bear arms, but no one is allowed to sell you a gun. It's a contradiction that allows bluenose busybodies to pretend they're not.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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