Conservative senators fight dirty movies -- A Senate bill aims at smut, but entertainers fear it may hit free speech

Conservatives in the U.S. Senate are setting off alarms in the entertainment industry with what many see as another legislative squeeze play on the First Amendment. This one, called the Pornography Victims Compensation Act, is threatening to blow up into the biggest free-speech fracas since Sen. Jesse Helms lambasted the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 for funding ”dirty” pictures.

Nicknamed the Bundy bill (after serial killer Ted Bundy, who claimed before his 1989 execution that porn made him murder), the proposed legislation would allow sex-crime victims to collect damages from the makers and distributors of pornographic films, books, and magazines if they can prove the X-rated materials were linked to their attack. ”Pornography is becoming increasingly violent,” says Scott Sowry, press secretary to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the bill’s main sponsor. ”It’s time those who are profiting from these veritable how-to manuals for rapists and child abusers were held accountable.”

Technically, the bill targets only ”obscene” materials, but it’s not just pornographers who are upset. Many mainstream entertainment figures see the bill as a frightening precedent. Young-adults’ book author Judy Blume thinks the porn legislation is ”ridiculous and dangerous.” Actor Ed Asner calls it ”idiotic and illogical,” providing ”a Twinkie excuse for every crime.” Danny Goldberg, senior vice president of Atlantic Records, says, ”If this bill had been around at the time of the Manson murders, the Beatles would have been prosecuted for ‘Helter Skelter.”’

Even the usually tight-lipped Teller (the silent half of the Penn & Teller magic duo) has raised his voice against the proposal. ”What people in show business object to,” he says, ”is the idea that entertainers are responsible for the behavior of their audience. It sets a very bizarre precedent. Pretty soon you’ll see parents of suicidal teenagers suing high schools for teaching Romeo and Juliet. Or burn victims suing Disney, claiming the arsonists were inspired by Bambi.”

The Senate is even taking heat from feminists who might have been expected to support an antiporn bill. A letter signed by screenwriter Nora Ephron, poet Adrienne Rich, novelist Erica Jong, and 180 other members of the Ad Hoc Committee for Feminists for Free Expression asks the lawmakers, ”If Congress is certain that books and videos cause crime, why blame only books or videos on sexual themes? Why not blame the Bible, which scores of people every year cite as justification for abuse and murder?”

Supporters of the bill say its critics are overreacting. ”There’s a lot of misplaced hysteria in the entertainment industry,” says Sowry. ”This bill only deals with obscene materials and child pornography, which are already illegal. It’s inconceivable that this legislation could be used against mainstream entertainers. These people have to have a little more faith in the system.”

The Bundy bill is now before the Senate’s lawmaking Judiciary Committee. Some observers are predicting the panel will give it a thumbs-up in an election year that has already seen several attacks on the arts. In January, Republicans put federal funding for PBS on hold because of what they term the nonprofit network’s liberal programming bias. In February, President Bush dismissed John Frohnmayer as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. (Under Frohnmayer, NEA grants to Karen Finley and other sexually explicit artists drew fire from presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan and other conservatives.)

All told, this is looking like a year in which pornography, censorship, and free speech will be what much of America is talking about.

Reported by: Sharon Isaak, with Jane Birnbaum and Peter Kobel