Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* Sexually Explicit Materials and the Internet, by Douglas Birsch

The Human Rights View and Obscene Material

When we say that people have human rights, we are claiming that all people have these rights simply due to the fact that they are human beings. A standard way of thinking about rights is to correlate them with duties. If I have the right to life, you have a corresponding duty not to kill me (except in exceptional cases like justified self-defence). People act unethically when they violate the rights of others or fail to live up to the duties correlated with the rights. One of the basic human rights is the right to liberty. If we assert that people have the right to liberty, it may seem that they should be allowed to view obscene material if they choose to do so. Therefore, the restriction of obscene material might be seen as a violation of --the right to liberty.

I agree with the Supreme Court that if offensiveness is at issue, then the matter ought to be settled at the community level. If a significant portion of the community is offended by the material, there will be indirect harm and a justification for regulation of the low value material. This regulation should not be considered to be an actual violation of the right to liberty.

I have based the philosophical argument about the regulation of obscenity on the right to liberty and not on the right to privacy since I disagree with the Supreme Court's conception of privacy. The court discusses privacy in terms of limiting interference in "zones of privacy." Following George Brenkert, I think that the right to privacy protects our ability to control information about and access to ourselves. Thus, the right to privacy might protect the information that someone views obscene material, but it would not protect their freedom to view that material. The ability or power to choose to view obscene material is related to liberty.

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