Interview with Paula Houston, Utah ‘Obscenity and Pornography Complaints Ombudsman’ (State Attorney General’s Office)
Interview conducted in 2001 by Patrick McGrath, then MIM Director of Media Relations
The Utah State Legislature created the office of “Obscenity and Pornography Complaints Ombudsman” in the State Attorney General’s office, starting in 2001. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff appointed former city prosecutor Paula Houston to the position earlier this year.
Some of the duties that the Legislature assigned to the “porn czar” include: providing citizens advice and information on options for obscenity complaints, remedies to address pornography, and the dangers of obscenity and pornography; assist local prosecutors if requested; provide expert advice on strengthening local ordinances; and draft a comprehensive moral nuisance law and model ordinance to discourage obscenity and pornography.
QUESTION: Could you tell us about your background and education?
ANSWER: I grew up in Montana. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, and went to law school also at BYU, the J. Reuben Park Law School.
QUESTION: Did you immediately go into prosecuting when you left law school?
ANSWER: While I was in law school, I started as a law clerk for the West Valley City, Utah, prosecutor’s office, and started prosecuting cases for them while I was in law school, and once I graduated and got my license, they hired me as an attorney for them.
QUESTION: So you’re saying that in Utah, individual municipalities have their own prosecutor’s offices?
ANSWER: The cities have their own local prosecuting attorney’s offices. They handle the misdemeanor cases, and in the case of [obscenity] they can handle the felony cases as well. There are a few exceptions in the law [in Utah] where they can handle felonies.
QUESTION: And then there are county district attorney’s offices that handle the more serious felonies?
ANSWER: There are.
QUESTION: Describe West Valley City. What kind of a place is it?
ANSWER: It’s just a suburb of Salt Lake City, the west side.
QUESTION: And it’s organized as its own municipality.
QUESTION: I understand that while you were working for West Valley City, you prosecuted a number of obscenity cases. Could you go into more detail about the obscenity cases you prosecuted?
ANSWER: The cases that I prosecuted were videotape cases. The first one was actually while I was a law clerk. We began working on that case—it was videotapes that were being rented out of a “back room,” that were the hard core pornography tapes. We had to use an undercover officer to get the trust of the store owners so that they would start renting to him, get the information that we needed to prosecute the case.
QUESTION: And this undercover officer would discuss the matter—in other words, to establish scienter. [Ed. Note: Scienter, a legal term meaning a defendant’s “guilty knowledge,” is a prerequisite for a successful obscenity prosecution.]
QUESTION: Were all of these cases video cases, or were there other kinds?
ANSWER: Actually they were all video cases, and they were all in the “back room.” The last one that I did was a gentleman who was selling them out of a swap meet, and he had them in separate boxes, either under the table or behind a curtain, so if he saw somebody he thought might be interested, he’d say, “I have some better tapes over here if you want to look,” and he didn’t let everyone see those. So we had officers working there, and he happened to ask one of them, and so then they started working undercover and getting more tapes from him, to see what kinds of things he was selling, and developed the case from there.
QUESTION: With regard to the stores that you prosecuted, you say that they had “regular” videos up front, and the infamous “back room” with the porn videos.
QUESTION: Are those stores — the ones that you prosecuted—are they still selling porn videos, or were the prosecutions that you brought forward sufficient to deter them for the future?
ANSWER: The first time—we prosecuted the same store twice, several years apart, and the first time they stayed in business, the second time—shortly after we prosecuted them, they went out of business.
QUESTION: So there were how many video stores altogether in West Valley City?
ANSWER: There were two different video stores that we prosecuted.
QUESTION: Out of how many video stores in the municipality?
ANSWER: Oh, I don’t even know.
QUESTION: But plainly not all of them had the “back rooms.”
ANSWER: At least we didn’t get information on the others. And the only way you found out about them was a complainant, somebody filing a complaint.
QUESTION: So a citizen would come in and file a complaint with your office and ask for an investigation?
QUESTION: Could you tell us about your appointment to your new state-wide position?
ANSWER: Well, it was a job that the Legislature created, that mandated the Attorney General’s office to hire somebody for this position to carry out the duties they set out. So I was aware of it as it went through the Legislature, and I thought it that might be an interesting job, that it was something that I might be interested in doing, depending on how they wanted to develop the office, what they were going to expect the person to do. And I kind of just watched it, and when it came open I applied for the job, was interviewed by Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, and discussed different ways to develop the job, and what kind of things he would expect, and decided it was something I would really like to do, and I felt I could make a difference in this area, and he offered me the job and I took it.
QUESTION: And you started your job when?
ANSWER: February 12th.
QUESTION: This past February 12th?
QUESTION: What are your general and specific goals for your office?
ANSWER: My general goal is to bring awareness of the issues of pornography. The Legislature set out specifically that my job is to educate, it’s to help citizens understand the dangers and harms of pornography and obscenity, it’s to help them understand ways that they can restrict it or even eliminate it from their community, and it’s to help them understand what their rights are, and what their duties are in dealing with these community issues of pornography and obscenity.
Then along with that it’s also to work with the Government agencies in helping them to understand all those same things, and ways that they can address these issues legally, in their community. And so, the first thing that I’m working on is with all the cities and counties on their sexually-oriented business laws, and making sure that they have them in place, or that they’re updated, so that they have current laws in place. That’s one of the big projects that I’m working on.
And then community awareness is the other big project.
QUESTION: What kind of staff and resources do you have?
ANSWER: Well, I’m part of the Attorney General’s office, so I have some of their resources available to me. But specific for this position, my self and I have a paralegal to assist me.
QUESTION: But you can draw on the staff of the AG’s office.
ANSWER: For example, most of my calls are directed to the main line number, which is the receptionist’s desk. So she takes those calls and refers them to whomever they need to go to. But it was pretty limited. They [the Legislature] set a budget of $150,000 a year.
QUESTION: You mentioned earlier that you were able to get the prosecutions started because people made referrals, they called you and said, “Can you make these investigations?” Has that happened since you’ve come into your new office?
ANSWER: It has.
QUESTION: Roughly how many?
ANSWER: Well, it depends on what kind of complaint you’re asking about. I get approximately five calls or e-mails a day, with people complaining about e-mail porn spam. I get a lot in that area. On the bookstores and videotapes, and other sexually oriented businesses, I may get an average of maybe five a month. So that hasn’t been real high, but most of them have worked pretty well with their local agencies. And that’s what I do, working with the local agencies in addressing those issues.
QUESTION: So there have been some prosecutable referrals that you’ve received.
ANSWER: Right. And I get the calls generally when I’ve been on a TV show talking about it, or there’s been some media thing, where someone can say, “Well, I can call her.” So getting my name out there, and that they can file complaints with me is a big part of what needs to happen here.
QUESTION: Do you handle, or do you intend to handle, at least some prosecutions yourself, or are you generally leaving it to the municipal and county prosecutors who are in place?
ANSWER: My prosecutorial powers are limited to when a local agency asks for assistance. So I have to work with them, and if they want assistance then I will be here to provide whatever type of assistance they need, which may be just research and background kind of information, and then in some cases they may want somebody to help them with the trial.
QUESTION: So you’re limited by statute; they have to make the call to ask for your assistance.
QUESTION: One thing that we’ve been wondering about here—a prosecutorial instrument called a “generic warrant.” Could you tell us more about that, and whether you intend to promote the use of generic warrants?
ANSWER: Well, I’ve never called them “generic warrants.” I don’t like that term.
QUESTION: Okay, what do you call them instead?
ANSWER: Well, when I talk to people about it, I call it the “Sequoia Book” method. That’s what it’s based on. The case was out of Illinois, that actually, I read about in your Obscenity Law Bulletin. And they were warrants that they used, and they won in the Supreme Courts, and [we] liked the idea, so we started using them.
QUESTION: Could you describe what a “Sequoia Books” warrant is like? What makes it different from other kinds of warrants?
ANSWER: Traditionally, [in order to get a search warrant], you had to view the material in its entirety, and then do a summary of that for the judge, so the judge is getting the full view of what the material is, to make the determination whether there’s “probable cause” to believe that it’s obscene or not, that it violates your state’s standards, or your community standards.
For example, in our video cases, we would rent five or ten different videos from the obscenity videos that were in the “back room.” And we would go through and do specific warrants on those videos. So they’d be very detailed, listing all of the sex acts, the content, the story line, all of that kind of information in those videos.
And then after we had viewed those, and done those warrants, then we would do another warrant, that would be what we called the Sequoia warrant, and we would do say, “All of these videotapes are together in the same location, they’re all on the same list, they’re all represented by the person we’re renting them from as being the same type of videos, and every one of them have had all of these different sexual explicit acts in them, with no story line, with nothing to indicate that it has any kind of value to it when you view it as a whole, and we have reason to believe, based on that information, that all of those videos will be of the same context and the same type of material.
So what we do is then ask for authority from the court to then search those videos, and that if they have these same type of acts in them, that we have the right to seize them, and so that’s how we do it. We take in TVs, VCRs, pop the tape in the machine; if they show any kind of explicit sex acts, we take them, and then do the return to the court.
QUESTION: About how many of these kinds of warrants have you used since you’ve come into your new office?
ANSWER: No, those were all done when I was at West Valley.
QUESTION: Have other prosecutors in Utah used them? Are you promoting the use of these kinds of warrants?
QUESTION: How often are they using these kinds of warrants?
ANSWER: I have no idea. I know that the prosecutors have told me that they really like the idea of using those, that they intend to use them, but I have no idea if any of them have ever actually used them.
QUESTION: Have other states contacted you or AG Shurtleff about setting up porn czar’s offices in their states?
QUESTION: Can you say how many?
ANSWER: I’m not sure how many states—I know that Mark Shurtleff has indicated he’s had several calls from states on it, and I know that I’ve talked with at least three different states on it. The representative that sponsored the bill to create my position has now just sent out a letter to all of the State Legislatures encouraging them to adopt the same kind of legislation, with a copy of the legislation and a letter from, I think, the Speaker of the House.
QUESTION: Do you know if there’s been any response to that?
ANSWER: He just sent it out this last week.
QUESTION: I understand that you participated in obscenity prosecution workshops in Utah that were given by our Paul McGeady and Bruce Taylor of the National Law Center for Children and Families. Did you find them useful?
ANSWER: Oh, very useful, yes.
QUESTION: How useful?
ANSWER: Well, on a scale of one to ten, compared to other conferences, a ten. They were much more practical, with the how-to kind of information, and what to deal with, and the issues that you can address, and I just found them to be extremely helpful.
QUESTION: And you’re using them in very practical ways.
QUESTION: Such as?
ANSWER: Well, that’s where the Sequoia Books method came from. We liked it a lot. Just staying up on what all the states are doing, kind of as a guide to know where you’re fitting in with everything, because you’re always challenged, especially since they’ve created this position. For me, one of the common things people say is, “Oh, it’s just Utah being really conservative and prudish, and it’s the influence of the LDS church, it’s all these different reasons why we’re doing this stuff,” and it’s helpful for me to be able to say, “Look, this is what other states are doing across the country. We’re not doing anything really unique. Creating the position was unique, but the enforcement itself is not unique.”
QUESTION: Are you there indefinitely? Do you serve at the pleasure of the Attorney General, or the Legislature, or both?
ANSWER: Both! It started out with a six-month allotment of money and that was it.
QUESTION: And there’s been enough support to continue the project.
ANSWER: The Legislature gave additional funding to continue it for another year.
QUESTION: And you see the funding continuing.
ANSWER: I do. I think people are satisfied with what’s happening, and with the number of calls from citizens, that it’s clearly something that people are seeing as a benefit. And then there are always the dissenters, but the majority of the people, I think, find it helpful. They don’t know where to go for this kind of help, and a lot of times, your local prosecutors and police don’t always know what to do with a lot of these issues. And citizens have a lot of questions on it.