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This question popped up on the HNQ sometime over the last couple of days and it started a discussion in one of the chat rooms.

https://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/66409/is-watching-porn-in-university-a-crime

We all began to wonder about US law and whether or not it was legal to watch pornography in public places.

Imagine walking up to Starbucks dragging along a 1st and 3rd grader and running into streaming porn on laptops throughout the store. Not that they would allow it but, you get the idea.

So my question

Is it legal in the US to watch pornography in public places?

I imagine this may trail out into state laws and skip Federal altogether but I seem to remember Larry Flint having a Supreme Court victory related to pornography sales and Hustler magazine as a product being visible to potential consumers in stores. So there's that.

Edit

Regarding localization to US States and commentary to that effect.

This is a Federal question.

This seems to pertain. Flynt vs Fallwell in the Supreme Court regarding the 1st Amendment. Flynt won regarding the display and definition of pornography vs expression.

This addition doesn't change the question, it simply justifies it as a Federal question rather than one for the States as this is primarily a Constitutional issue.

  • 2
    If this is illegal, I also wonder if it's something that will earn you a place on a sexual crime registration list. – JPhi1618 Apr 6 '16 at 19:42
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    Are stores really public places? I was under the impression that most stores are privately owned. – mathreadler Apr 7 '16 at 13:33
  • if anyone can go in and out unrestricted it's a public place. – Citizen Apr 7 '16 at 15:35
  • @mathreadler I'm pretty sure most businesses - especially stores and other places where individuals not previously known to the property/business owner are permitted to enter freely - are considered "public spaces". I'm not a lawyer, but this would seem to be common sense. If nobody in the place is duty-bound to stop someone else from coming and looking over your shoulder, it's probably not a place you should be watching porn. – Iszi Apr 8 '16 at 0:10
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    yeah, private vs public is kind of ambiguous without context. if you're talking about ownership, private vs public means one thing. If you're talking about 4th amendment expections of privacy, private vs public means another thing. If you're talking about first amendment speech, private vs public means yet another thing. – user3851 Apr 8 '16 at 19:47
14

tl;dr there is at least one instance of a disorderly conduct charge for watching pornography in a public library.

I bring you the story of STATE OF WISCONSIN v DAVID J. REIDINGER. From the most recent (January 2016) appeals court decision:

David Reidinger was found to have violated WIS. ADMIN. CODE § UWS 18.11(2), which prohibits disorderly conduct in University of Wisconsin System buildings or on university lands. The evidence at trial established that others witnessed Reidinger viewing pornography in a public library on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC) campus. On appeal, Reidinger argues he has a First Amendment right to view legal adult pornographic material at a public library. Reidinger also vaguely alludes to a conspiracy between numerous public officers and employees to harass him. We reject these arguments and affirm.

Background

Following a bench trial, Reidinger was found to have violated WIS. ADMIN. CODE § UWS 18.11(2) and was fined $295. Shannon Riley, a student supervisor at the McIntyre Library on the UWEC campus, testified she received a complaint from a student at 10:40 p.m. on December 14, 2014. The complaining student testified that she and her roommate were working on homework at the library when they noticed Reidinger watching pornographic material on the computer next to them. Two university police officers, Edward Lancour and Amanda Henry, responded to the complaint.

Lancour and Henry met with the complaining students, who showed the officers a picture they had taken of Reidinger’s computer screen that showed open pornographic images. Lancour then personally observed Reidinger watching pornographic material on the computer for approximately thirty seconds before asking him to close the browser and move with him to a library stairwell to discuss the matter. Lancour testified he told Reidinger his watching pornography was causing a disturbance, to which Reidinger responded that he had a constitutional right to view pornographic material at a public library. Lancour then told him they had received several complaints, and witnesses had stated that Reidinger viewing pornography at that location made them feel uncomfortable. Reidinger was issued a citation for disorderly conduct under WIS. ADMIN. CODE § UWS 18.11(2) the following day.

I am actually mildly surprised by this decision, because United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003) seems to indicate that the ability of adult users of a public library to disable Internet filters in order to view lawful content is constitutionally critical to the question of whether such filters are allowed, as stated in a concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy:

If, on the request of an adult user, a librarian will unblock filtered material or disable the Internet software filter without significant delay, there is little to this case.

Specifically, as stated in the dissenting opinion on Bradburn v. N. Cent. Reg'l Library Dist., 2010: "Even accepting for the moment that these libraries are not a limited public forum, eight justices found the ability of a patron to disable the filter constitutionally critical."

Thus there are many reports of libraries refusing to stop adult patrons from viewing pornography on these grounds:

However, a Washington State Supreme Court decision (Bradburn v. N. Cent. Reg'l Library Dist., 2010) found that public libraries do not have to disable Internet filters by request of an adult user.

(Note: I also posted this answer on Academia.SE)

  • What you quote seems to indicate that it is not the watching by itself that is illegal, but allowing others to see it who don't want to. – gnasher729 Oct 2 '17 at 18:53

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