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Battle lines are drawn over US pornography study. Issues include child exploitation and porn as a cause of violence

This week the federal commission appointed by Attorney General Edwin Meese III to investigate pornography in the United States will release its final report. More than any such government study in recent memory, the pornography investigation has been the subject of heated controversy even before the panel's findings and recommendations officially became public. At the heart of the controversy has been the commission's conclusion that certain forms of pornography hurt society. The panel reportedly has determined that sexually violent pornographic material contributes to violent behavior by some consumers; that nonviolent but degrading pornographic material contributes to discrimination against women; and that even sexually explicit material that is neither violent nor degrading may harm society in less tangible ways.

Among the Meese Commission's recommendations are stiffer federal and state laws regulating pornography and more vigorous law enforcement efforts against pornography traffickers.

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Critics of the commission have questioned both its findings and the data and analytical methods it used to reach its conclusions. Also, civil liberties organizations have expressed alarm that the panel's report will encourage greater government censorship of materials that they insist are protected by the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee.

After seeing the commission's initial findings, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused the panel of ``breaking constitutional standards with its plan to beat the sleaze problem.''

ACLU legislative counsel Barry Lynn said the commission had ``failed miserably'' in assessing the impact on American life of the $8 billion-a-year pornographic industry.

And the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship is challenging the study's assumption that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between pornography and violence.

But the commission has its defenders. Jerry Kirk, the president of the Ohio-based National Coalition Against Pornography (N-CAP), says that ``the pornographers and groups such as the ACLU are misrepresenting the Meese Commission's findings even before the report has been delivered to the attorney general.''

Almost overlooked in the furor over the commission has been its focus on child pornography. According to an advance summary of the panel's findings prepared by N-CAP, the commission concluded that child pornography ``is not so much a form of pornography as it is a form of sexual exploitation of children.''

As summarized in the N-CAP overview, more than half of the commission's 92 recommendations deal with curbing child pornography. They include tougher state and federal laws regulating the use of youngsters in sexually explicit books and films, and more concerted government investigations to uncover and confiscate materials using children for illicit purposes.

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The commission is also expected to recommend that federal agencies -- including the State and Justice Departments and the US Postal Inspection Service -- develop stronger cooperative efforts with other nations to detect and intercept child pornography. According to the N-CAP assessment, much child-pornography material is produced outside the United States, but the US is the largest market for such material.

Yet another controversy developed over the Meese Commission's plan to attach to its report a list of 10,000 stores across the US which the panel identified as selling pornographic magazines. Fearing that they would be included on what critics called the commission's ``blacklist,'' more than 8,000 drug and convenience stores across the nation have started to remove ``adult'' magazines from their racks. However, a federal judge recently ordered the panel to withdraw the list from its findings.

Some church groups and women's organizations have boycotted or picketed businesses that sell these materials.

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