Polk County officials arrested a Lakeland man on obscenity charges Friday after investigating his graphic Web site, which has gained international attention for allowing U.S. soldiers to post pictures of war dead on the Internet.
The charges against Christopher Michael Wilson, a former police officer, are likely to reignite the debate about obscene material in the Internet age. It also raises questions about whether the federal government played a part in motivating the prosecution.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said late Friday that the 300 obscenity-related charges against Wilson all involve sexual content on his Web site — and not graphic war-scene images posted by soldiers.
“It is the most horrific, vile, perverted sexual conduct,” Judd said. “It is as vile, as perverted, as non-normal sexual conduct, which rises to the level of obscenity, as we’ve ever investigated.”
Late last week, U.S. Army officials said they could not confirm whether photographs on Wilson’s Web site, presumably showing Iraqi and Afghan war dead, were actually posted by U.S. soldiers.
An Islamic civil-rights group was disappointed that the Army did not pursue criminal charges. Last week, Ibrahim Hooper, a Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman, said: “For this to be treated in a manner that suggests the Army does not take this seriously is only going to further harm our nation’s image and interests around the world, particularly in the Muslim world.”
Wilson, 27, was letting soldiers access normally paid portions of his site in exchange for graphic war-scene shots or proof that they were fighting in the Middle East, for instance. Late Friday, Wilson’s site, which the Orlando Sentinel will not name, still had grisly images of war dead.
Judd said none of the 20 films and 80 photos that brought about the charges involves pictures of war dead. But Judd confirmed that his detectives did speak with officials with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division before arresting Wilson on Friday.
Wilson’s Web site and his deal with soldiers have been the subject of many recent news articles.
Judd said his obscenity charges have nothing to do with the Army’s interest in the case, and he maintained in a lengthy interview that he was not pressured to investigate Wilson.
“We unilaterally initiated the investigation without any support, help or encouragement from the federal government,” Judd said.
But Wilson’s Central Florida lawyer, Larry Walters, questioned the motivations behind the prosecution, noting that there may be hundreds of thousands of Web sites with explicit material.
“Why are they getting into this battle now, and why Chris Wilson?” Walters asked. “It’s the military that potentially stands to have the greatest gripe.”
Walters argued that local community standards, the guiding principle behind implementation of obscenity laws, cannot be applied to the Web, a global venue.
“Any obscenity charge against any Web-site content or Internet content is unconstitutional,” said Walters, who specializes in First Amendment law. “There is no commonality based on just geography anymore. It’s not the 1800s anymore, not here. But I don’t know about Polk County.”
He said part of Walters’ mission “is telling the truth about the war going on in Iraq.”
Wilson was in the Polk County Jail, with bail set at $151,000. Charges include counts of distribution of obscene material, offering to distribute obscene material and possession of obscene material with intent to distribute.
Before Wilson’s arrest, Polk County Judge Angela Cowden found probable cause that the images and tapes were obscene, Judd said. The obscenity statute is one of the few in which a judge must make such a determination before an arrest is made. Investigators also obtained a search warrant and removed computers from Wilson’s home.
They will be looking for customer lists and other documents to assist the investigation. Information that Army investigators might need in their search will be made available, Judd said.
Though Wilson’s equipment was removed, his Web site remained in operation Friday because the servers used to run the site are overseas.
“It’s never our intent to put somebody out of business,” Judd said. “All we ask is that they obey the laws of Florida. We’ve been investigating vice and pornography long enough to know pretty much what crosses the line. This didn’t just cross the line. This left the line many miles behind.”
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