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A hundred years ago, you could be arrested if your drawing, writing or other form of creative expression was considered obscene by the authorities. Artistic freedom was not as important as preserving public morality. And the idea that a century on, pornography could be displayed and sold in perfectly legal shops was unthinkable.

For good or bad, those times are far behind us. One of the greatest jewels of the United States is her First Amendment, a piece of law enshrined in her constitution and systematically strengthened by the courts through the last century – that guarantees the freedom of expression for all. In modern day USA you can depict anything and not worry about the moral police coming after you. Of course you can still be charged if your work is libelous or directly incites violence or violates someone else’s rights. But other than that, the idea that someone can be put in jail simply for expressing distasteful thoughts or fantasies is preposterous. This is a free country, right?

Wrong.

Karen Fletcher, a reclusive woman living in Pittsburgh, recently began posting short stories on the Internet that describe, in graphic detail, the sexual abuse of children – in order, she says, to cope with her own history of childhood abuse. The internet abounds in pornography, much of it visual. Fletcher’s stories had no illustrations, were obvious works of fantasy, and were not displayed publicly. The only way to read these stories was by paying a modest sum of ten dollars a month, so that – Fletcher says – she could she could keep the website running and also protect children (and unwilling adults) from accessing it. Yet those stories, read by about 29 paying subscribers, have made Fletcher one of the few people facing federal criminal charges for obscenity.

In many ways, Fletcher’s case is unusual. A obscenity charge is rare these days, and almost unheard of in situations where no one has been harmed in the making of the offending material. And a case like Fletcher’s, which involves only the written word, has not been successfully prosecuted in the last thirty five years in this country.

So if this case feels like a throwback to the dark ages, it indeed is. But it should not be viewed in isolation. Recent years have witnessed an increasing clamping down on civil liberties in the US, accompanied by the passage of the Patriot Act, draconian anti-discrimination laws, hate-crime laws and an atmosphere of extreme political correctness. This particular case seems to be an example of the Bush administration’s efforts to cater to the religious right and reinvigorate the Obscenity Act. It is a long, slippery slope. Once a certain level of freedom becomes unacceptable, the bar is lowered and the next act of censorship is not only easier but also more extreme. Intolerance begets greater intolerance and by the time you realise the value of what you have lost, it is too late. Once these freedoms are gone, the wheels of motion are much harder to turn in the opposite direction. Illiberality and offended sensibilities make for excellent political nourishment. Those of us from India will attest to that.

It is possible that Karen Fletcher will not be convicted. If she is, God save us all.

The case is now over, see update (5/21/08)


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