The power of words: obscenity and the law

Who said writing isn’t dangerous? Writing a short story can be a federal crime. 

Karen Fletcher, a 56-year-old woman from Donora, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty in the first text-based case of obscenity prosecution in more than 30 years. 

Fletcher ran a members-only website called “Red Rose,” and charged 29 subscribers $10 a month to read stories describing the rape and torture of young children.  

In an affidavit, Fletcher said she had been sexually abused as a child and her writing was cathartic. She said she didn’t know if the stories were based on her experiences or whether they were fictitious.  

“I have always been afraid of monsters. The monsters in my life had always been real; for too long they were always there with unlimited access to me, and I was helpless to do anything about it,” she wrote. “In my stories, I have created new monsters. [They] rise above the horror of the real life monsters. Somehow, making these monsters so much worse makes me feel better, and makes my life seem more bearable. I may still be afraid of the monsters, but at least in the stories, they prey on someone else, not me.” 


A federal grand jury indicted Fletcher in 2006. A few days ago, she pleaded guilty a few days ago to six counts of distributing obscenity online. 

I haven’t read her writing, and I don’t intend to. Some of her stories involve 2-year-olds; I have a 2-year-old son. U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan called it “some of the most disturbing, disgusting and vile material I’ve ever viewed.” I’ll take her word for it.

What interests me is that Fletcher only used words, not pictures. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that text can be obscene, but there has not been a successful obscenity prosecution in the United States in the past 25 years that did not involve drawings or photos.

The Supreme Court has also defined the qualities of an obscene work:

  1. the work appeals to prurient interest in sex;
  2. it portrays sexual acts in a patently offensive way; 
  3. it has no serious literary, artistic, social or political value. 

Before the Court imposed its obscenity standard in the 1960s, works by James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and others that are now regarded as works of literature were banned as obscene.

While I refuse to read what Fletcher appears to have written, I defend her right to write and share it. Here’s why:

  • The image can’t be blocked out, but no one can force us to read against our will
  • It’s not the government’s job to decide what we should or should not read; it’s our job. 
  • Reading and writing fiction is an act of imagination. Banning fiction is like outlawing imagination.
  • There has long been a religious, puritan strain in this country that has chafed at the notion of a free and unregulated market of ideas, however vile. I think this is what Supreme Court Justice William Douglas was getting at when he wrote in a 1966 ruling that overturned the obscenity ban on Fanny Hill

    Every time an obscenity case is to be argued here, my office is flooded with letters and postal cards urging me to protect the community or the Nation by striking down the publication. The messages are often identical even down to commas and semicolons. The inference is irresistible that they were all copied from a school or church blackboard. Dozens of postal cards often are mailed from the same precinct. The drives are incessant, and the pressures are great. Happily, we do not bow to them. I mention them only to emphasize the lack of popular understanding of our constitutional system. Publications and utterances were made immune from majoritarian control by the First Amendment, applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth. No exceptions were made, not even for obscenity.