Supreme Court to Rule on ‘Dial-a-Porn’

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Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court said Monday that it will decide whether Congress may outlaw so-called “dial-a-porn” messages, the sexually explicit telephone recordings that callers can reach through the 976 exchange.

The high court said that it will review a ruling, issued in Los Angeles in July by U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima, on the Telephone Decency Act of 1987, which makes it a crime to offer “by means of telephone . . . any obscene or indecent communication for commercial purposes to any person.”

In his split ruling, Tashima upheld the part of the law banning “obscene” messages, but he struck down the ban on less explicit “indecent” messages.


Both the Los Angeles company that challenged the law, Sable Communications of California, and the Federal Communications Commission appealed Tashima’s ruling (Sable vs. FCC, 88-515, and FCC vs. Sable, 88-525).

Despite many past court rulings, both “obscenity” and “indecency” are somewhat hazy legal concepts. Nevertheless, the high court has made it clear that a local community, through a jury, can decide what is obscene.

Lawyers for Sable, which sells dial-a-porn services, contend that the law violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment. They say that Tashima’s ruling would permit federal prosecutors to file suit in a “less tolerant” city such as Salt Lake City, charging that its dial-a-porn messages were obscene. That could have the effect, they say, of forcing adults in Los Angeles to live by standards set in a far more conservative community.

U.S. attorneys maintain that the government has the right to protect children from indecency and there is no way to stop minors from calling dial-a-porn services.

In the past, the justices have struck down most government attempts to regulate sexually explicit books, magazines or movies. But in 1978, the court took a different tack regarding television and radio. These broadcasts are “pervasive” in the home and children have easy access to them, the court said.

The dial-a-porn cases, to be argued in April, require the justices to decide whether telephone services can be regulated like television, because children can be exposed to them, or like a movie, because they require an individual to seek out and pay for the service.


Begun in the early 1980s as telephone companies offered new for-pay services, the pre-recorded sexual messages, which usually cost $2 in addition to any toll, have become a big business. By 1984, dial-a-porn services averaged 800,000 calls a day, prompting the move in Congress to ban the business entirely.