Aug. 28, 2003 -- Rob Zicari and his fiancée, Janet Romano, are facing the first major federal prosecution for obscenity in more than a decade. They face 10 counts relating to the production and distribution by mail of obscene materials, and each could get 50 years in prison and a fine of up to $2.5 million.
"We're facing more time than the guy that they just arrested that was trying to sell the surface-to-air missile," said Zicari.
On April 8, law enforcement seized five movies produced by Zicari's California-based company, Extreme Associates, which bills itself as "The Hardest Hard Core on the Web."
One of the confiscated movies, Forced Entry, features three graphic scenes of women being spat upon, raped and murdered. Extreme Teens #24 has adult women dressed up and acting like little girls in various hard-core pornographic scenes. We can't even tell you the title of one of the films.
‘There’s Nothing Wrong With What We Do’
Most Americans would probably find the content of the films disgusting. Zicari doesn't disagree — but he says to each his own.
"There's nothing wrong with what we do," said Zicari. "[W]e're not drug dealers or murderers, you know. We make movies. That's it."
But for the Bush administration, that's enough.
"Obscenities have always been a priority of the attorney general," said Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania. "[A]nd he has asked each U.S. attorney to make that our priority as well."
Buchanan is the lead prosecutor on the case against Zacari. So jurors in Pittsburgh will have to decide if Zicari's movies fit the legal definition of obscenity.
"The material depicted in the videotapes produced by Extreme Associates is extremely vile, degrading and extremely offensive to women," Buchanan said.
The nature of Extreme Associates' movies makes it an ideal target for Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department's opening salvo in its long-anticipated war on obscenity.
Ashcroft had planned on launching the anti-obscenity initiative back in 2001, but was sidetracked by the 9/11 terror attacks. Now the issue is once again a priority for the Justice Department.
"I can tell you that as long as I'm chief of the section, the section will work very hard to prosecute obscenity cases along with child pornography, another important focus for us," said Andrew Oosterbaan, chief of the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.
"This is about a priority for the country. This is something the country wants prosecuted and therefore we're prosecuting it."
Hard to Watch = Difficult to Defend
The Justice Department has chosen its target wisely. Zicari's films are difficult to watch — which may make them difficult to defend.
To meet the legal definition of obscenity, a film has to depict sex in an offensive and prurient fashion with no artistic value. It is this subjectivity that worries some in the industry.
Paul Fishbein, president of Adult Video News, a trade journal for the adult entertainment industry, is well aware of the conflict presented by the films of Extreme Associates. "They're horrible, unwatchable, disgusting, aberrant movies that I'd have to vote were not obscenity because the First Amendment is pure and has to remain pure," he said.
"The funny thing about my business is I don't force it on anybody," said Zicari. "The only people that are going to be forced to watch my movies are the 12 people that sit on that jury."
The Bush administration says that overall, adult films today are far more offensive than ever before. It places much of the blame with the Clinton administration for, it claims, not making obscenity prosecutions a priority.
People inside the multibillion-dollar porn industry say community standards have become more accepting in recent years, pointing to the success of Boogie Nights, a drama about 1970s adult filmmakers, several years ago.
Pleasing the Christian Right
Many anti-obscenity activists are members of the Christian right, a group that generally admires Ashcroft and is a key constituency in President Bush's re-election campaign.
Zicari vows that he'll fight this to the end. But it's unlikely that his prosecution will be the last.
"The current prosecution of Extreme Associates should put the pornography industry on notice that the U.S. Department of Justice is vigorously enforcing the federal obscenity laws," said Buchanan.
Zicari and Romano were arraigned Wednesday in Pittsburgh. Both pleaded not guilty.