Earlier this month, South Carolina state Representative Bill Chumley (R) filed a bill that would “require sellers to install digital blocking capabilities on computers and other devices that access the internet to prevent the viewing of obscene content.” The bill likely comes as a response to the increased computer literacy of younger generations — the people who, some believe, must be shielded from pornography.

The desire by members of government to ban or otherwise regulate porn — or, as those delicate, sensitive officials inevitably refer to it, “obscene content” — is nothing new. The success and survivability of these laws, however, is varied. In the United Kingdom, the recently passed Digital Economy Bill will soon prohibit porn sites from showing certain sex acts. In America, the argument for banning porn is often voiced in public forums. But regulating pornography and similar content in the United States doesn’t have a great track record of standing up to judicial scrutiny. This sort of governance is often struck down for infringing on people’s right to privacy or for being overbroad.

Rep. Chumley’s law, as a matter of fact, stands to violate a historic Supreme Court ruling on the matter. In 1969’s Stanley v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the possession of porn for private use is legal, and falls under the protection of the right to privacy. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in the opinion of the Court, “Whatever may be the justifications for other statutes regulating obscenity, we do not think they reach into the privacy of one’s own home. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.” Although this case is nearly 40 years old, it’s hard to argue that this language isn’t applicable to something as personal and private as one’s own computer.

Perhaps even more troubling than the law’s unconstitutional nature is the means by which it is to be enforced. The fact that the bill calls for a censorship program to be pre-installed on all computers should be a cause for concern for all consumers. Even more troubling is the fact that the bill includes a provision wherein customers could verify their age and pay $20 to have the program removed. Alternatively, computer manufacturers could pay $20 per computer sold in order to opt out of using the program, a cost that would almost certainly be passed along to purchasers. Money collected would supposedly go to toward funding anti-trafficking efforts.

These provisions reduce this law to little more than government-sponsored ransomware, which is a form of malware that hijacks a computer and makes the user pay to have its services restored. You can look at all the porn you want, says South Carolina, you just have to cough up first.

Thankfully, it’s unclear how such a program as the one described in the bill would actually work and who would be responsible for creating it. The bill is currently in the state Congress’s judiciary committee, after which, if its members want the committee to live up to its name and acknowledge the precedent set by Stanley v. Georgia, it will go no further.

Photos via Flickr / Dboybaker, Getty Images / Miles Willis

Cory is an editorial intern for the culture section. He's from Long Island and, accordingly, knows that Billy Joel is better than Bruce Springsteen. He writes fiction in his spare time, and in college he taught himself to play bass because he wanted to be in a rock band but didn't want to work too hard.

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