Milpitas residents Carleen and Robert Thomas found a lucrative way to sell the hardest of hardcorepornography to smut fans all over the country: by computer bulletin board. Then their little Silicon Valley startup attracted the interest of a U.S. Postal S

"If you're going to apply community standards to judge obscenity, the courts ought to take into account the existence of virtual communities," says Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supports unfettered communication on the Net. "But in the near future, I think you're going to see more cases like [the Thomas'], until we start to build a consensus among citizens that as long as you don't force people to see this stuff and take measures to prevent children from getting access, you should leave people alone."

The Thomas' case turns out to be considerably more complex than the pencil sketch hurriedly drafted by the mainstream media. A foot-tall stack of court documents from the case reveals that the prosecution was based entirely on the investigation launched by SCOURGE, Memphis-based U.S. Postal Inspector David Dirmeyer. Dirmeyer's zealous investigation, in which he repeatedly offered Robert Thomas kiddie porn, was close enough to entrapment that the judge gave the jury a mini-seminar on its legal definition. Dirmeyer's efforts were so over the top that even the conservative Memphis jury threw out the kiddie-porn charge against Robert Thomas. And the net public gain from the government's prosecution of the Thomases is practically nil -- the AABBS is still quietly humming away in a Milpitas warehouse, even with Robert Thomas now in prison. On the other hand, the Thomases aren't exactly the First Amendment poster children that many news accounts have made them out to be. At the time of the bust, the Thomases were raking in more than a quarter of a million dollars a year on their bulletin board and related adult-videotape sales. The material on their bulletin board was so tawdry that the press could only refer gingerly to acts of "bestiality" and "sadomasochism." In reality, some of the material on the Thomas' bulletin board and tapes was so depraved and rawly misogynist -- including rape and torture films -- that a righteous San Francisco jury might well have sent the couple up the river for longer than the Memphis jury did.

The press routinely botches pornography and obscenity cases because the constraints of mainstream journalism prohibit them from describing the details. Recall, for instance, how the media whipped up a national debate over 2 Live Crew's lyrics several years ago without ever actually printing the offending words. As anyone who has viewed the evidence in the Thomas case can attest, the mainstream media outlets gave the couple a free ride. The case of U.S. v. Robert and Carleen Thomas is a bit like the Iran-Iraq war -- you kind of want both sides to lose.

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No matter -- virtuous people seldom make for good legal precedent. In fact, many important Supreme Court decisions have resulted from the clash of reprehensible forces. Ernesto Miranda, the Arizona man whose jailhouse self-incrimination led to the formulation of the as-seen-on-TV "Miranda warning," was eventually convicted on kidnapping and rape charges after the Supreme Court established the precedent in his name.

Robert and Carleen Thomas, a pair of high-tech pornographers, are equally unlikely characters around whom to rally for First Amendment rights. But the Thomas' case goes to the heart of the emerging battle over freedom of expression on computer networks. Theirs is an important story -- but not a pretty one.

"AMATEUR ACTION BBS -- THE NASTIEST PLACE ON EARTH!" That's the inviting welcome screen that still greets first-time users of the Thomas' Amateur Action Bulletin Board System. The Thomases certainly weren't the first to unite humankind's latest preoccupation -- computers -- with one of its oldest ones. But in just a few years' time, the couple managed to become two of the more successful cybersex entrepreneurs in the country. Their success in booting up a bootstrap operation displays just the sort of personal initiative unencumbered by government intrusion currently being touted by Republicans these days, leaving aside for a moment that the Thomas' empire was built mostly on cum shots.

That anyone would bother to pay for a service which makes you wait 20 minutes to download a fuzzy computer-generated image that can be seen in its original form at almost any adult bookstore testifies to the novelty attached to the new medium. But then, sex has played a significant role in the shaping of every form of communication throughout history. The medium may be the message, but it usually isn't long before it turns into the massage, a full Swedish one, at that.

No sooner did Gutenberg roll his first Bible off the printing press than his invention was employed in the service of more earthy forms of ecstasy. By the 18th cen-tury, pornographic works designed solely to arouse became common, culminating in the 1749 classic, Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Such works are tame by today's standards -- you'll find more raw sex on the evening news during sweeps week.

As each new form of communication emerged, sex has been a vital lubricant, insuring that the new medium developed smoothly. Photo-graphs of reclining nudes began circulating not long after the first ghostly image appeared on Fox Talbot's gel in 1835. Bawdy songs were recorded for posterity on the early Edison cylinders. Pornographic films were widely distributed underground in the '20s and '30s before being circulated freely. So it should come as no surprise that the awesome power of the silicon chip would be harnessed so that a dick shot could be sent to any computer in the world.

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