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Couple fights community standards in online porn case

By The Associated Press

09.05.00

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Tammy Robinson, also known as "Beckalynn," poses last month near a computer displaying one of her adult Web pages at her home in Holiday, Fla. Robinson and her husband are being prosecuted in Polk County on obscenity charges for 10 photos they posted on the site showing Tammy Robinson nude and performing simulated sex acts.

LAKELAND, Fla. — In this central Florida city where the faithful fill the church pews on Sunday mornings and women dress in hoop skirts at a local tourist attraction, a First Amendment debate has been sparked.

At issue are 10 photos of "Beckalynn," a platinum-blonde morsel of Internet eye-candy, posing nude and performing simulated sex acts. In real life, Beckalynn is Tammy Robinson, a 30-year-old mother of three who along with her husband now face felony obscenity charges for transmitting the photographs worldwide from their Lakeland home.

It's not the first time someone in Polk County has been brought up on charges of offending the community's standards, but the Robinsons' attorneys say this is a case that promises to venture into unchartered legal territory.

In order to determine if what the Robinsons have done is obscene, a judge and jury are being asked to apply Polk County's community standards to the Internet, a community that literally knows no bounds.

"I think Polk County is just a good, solid all-American place to live," said the Rev. Wayne Blackburn, senior pastor of Victory Assembly of God church, one of the community's largest congregations.

"I think the moral standards of Polk County try to be scripturally based. I think a good portion of Polk County would be of the Christian faith and try to conduct their lives, both publicly and privately, in a manner consistent with that.

"That may seem a little antiquated in the eyes of some."

The Robinsons, each charged with one felony count of wholesale promotion of obscene material, each face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine if convicted. Their March 1999 arrest by the Polk County Sheriff's Department has also produced two federal lawsuits filed by the Robinsons, who claim their civil rights have been violated.

The Robinson case comes at a time when lawmakers, and those who enforce the law, struggle to find a way to curtail Internet pornography within the bounds of the First Amendment.

In 1998, Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act that prohibits Web sites from knowingly allowing children access to pornography, but the law was immediately challenged as unconstitutional. In June, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down COPA in part because it found that there was no single "contemporary community standard" in cyberspace. The 3rd Circuit comprises New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Similar state laws have also been challenged and found to violate the First Amendment because they are overly broad and the standards for prosecution are too vague.

A federal commission is also looking into ways technology can be used to limit access to pornography sites, including the creation of an Internet domain that would essentially become a "red light" district for online pornography. Among the supporters of that effort is Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who has called on the online community to set some limits rather than waiting for government to do so.

"Beckalynn" continues to fight for her cause as the case winds through the court system.

Her attorneys, David Wasserman and Larry Walters, have made a specialty of defending people against pornography charges in Polk County and representing free speech issues on the Internet.

Robinson likes to talk of her days baking cookies for the PTA, but she's far less wholesome for those willing to share their credit card numbers at her Web site. With each passing day, she becomes better known as a First Amendment crusader.

"You can't just violate someone's civil rights and expect them to roll over," Robinson said.

Nothing about this case has been simple. The Robinsons were arrested via an unusual set of circumstances, according to court records.

Tammy Robinson called the local state attorney's office before she began posting pictures on the Internet, some 18 months before the arrest, to make sure it was legal. The secretary answering the phone there offered the following free legal advice: Don't have children involved.

More than a year later, in January 1999, Robinson called the sheriff's office to report that someone she'd been conversing with in a chat room had sent a message threatening to do harm to her and her children.

That's when Deputy Charles Gates Jr., the computer crimes investigator, logged on to the Beckalynn site.

About the same time, Gates was investigating a teen-age neighbor of the Robinsons for producing fake identification cards on his computer. During an interview with the boy, Gates asked the boy if he knew of anything going on in his neighborhood that shouldn't be. According to Gates' deposition, the boy volunteered that the Robinsons were making "dirty pictures" at their home.

The teen also told Gates that Tammy Robinson had given out a password to allow him to look at the pictures. Tammy Robinson denies doing so, saying she gave the password to the teen-ager's father.

Gates built his case by first asking a local judge to consider whether the photographs met the initial standards of obscenity and then to issue a search warrant. The surprise search caught Robinson naked in the bathroom, and she said she was paraded nude through the home as the lawmen cheered.

In a not so veiled comment about Polk's community standards, Tammy Robinson said the deputy who was assigned to drive her to jail had to be replaced because he was a Beckalynn "club" member.

In court records, Gates said that the pictures he presented to the judge were no worse than other photographs seen on the Internet, but added "a reasonable person would have believed they were obscene."

Robinson continues to post pictures of herself under the name "Beckalynn," earning more than a $1,000 a month. But she's moved out of Polk County.

Herbert Robinson, 35, lost his job at a Publix warehouse after the arrest and hasn't found steady employment. He said he answers honestly about his arrest history on employment applications.

The earnings from Beckalynn's club are stretched to cover the family's expenses and growing legal bills at Wasserman & Walters.

Robinson's attorneys believe someone other than the sheriff should determine Polk County's community standards. Soon, they plan to begin polling county residents to learn what those residents find objectionable.

In the past decade, more than 100 sex-oriented business in Polk County have been shut down, a record Sheriff Lawrence Crow touts in press releases.

A county ordinance forces dancers and lingerie models to cover most of their bodies. Businesses that don't shut down voluntarily have been prosecuted under racketeering laws.

Crow, Polk's sheriff for 13 years, is up for re-election this year. He declined to comment on Robinson's case or his anti-porn efforts.

Russ Knowles, a spokesman for Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill, denies there is a concerted effort to rid the county of adult businesses, saying they simply prosecute valid cases brought by the sheriff's office.

At times, the community has joined in on the anti-porn efforts. More than a year ago, a group of Warner Southern College students in Lake Wales started a petition drive to force a convenience store a block away from campus to stop selling nude magazines that were kept behind the counter.

Larry Walters, one Robinson's attorneys, says it remains to be seen what Polk County residents find objectionable. In a previous case against an adult video store, Walters said his law firm polled 300 area residents on what the word "prurient" means and only two knew.

"It's not something that anybody has a common understanding of any more even though it's a word that's used to put people in prison," Walters said.

Walters says the Robinsons' case will break new ground on an issue that has remained elusive, despite an attempt by Congress to regulate Internet content.

While a commission looks for ways to keep children from accessing material that some consider inappropriate, Tammy Robinson keeps up her fight.

Every time she's mentioned on a national talk show or news program, scores of new customers log on, paying the $30 annual fee to take a peep at some of "Beckalynn's" more explicit photos.

Right alongside the pinup photos are cries for free-speech rights. There's even a photo of "Beckalynn," somewhat covered by a skimpy bikini top, standing in front of the American flag.

"They felt I would be one to roll over and play dead," she said. "In fact, I'm not that kind of person."

Related

Free-speech advocates to panel: Find constitutional ways to keep kids safe online
Experts urge panelists to tread lightly, respect the First Amendment when trying to protect children from online porn.  07.18.00

COPA fails to get past federal appeals panel
3rd Circuit says government can't apply 'contemporary community standards' in cyberspace.  06.23.00

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