Military porn case shrinks barracks privacy

04/04/2013 4:11 PM

08/11/2014 12:35 PM

A newly upheld conviction of a former Fort Bragg soldier on charges of possessing computer-animated child porn offers several key lessons for military men and woman well beyond the sprawling North Carolina Army base.

One is child pornography is dangerous even if the kids depicted aren’t real. The second is privacy rights diminish in the barracks.

Both lessons spring from a new decision by the nation’s highest military appeals court, upholding the 2009 court-martial conviction of former Specialist Ryan A. Bowersox. Both also come amid the military’s battle to turn soldiers away from pornographic enticements.

“The real question left now is by how much does privacy shrink in the barracks room?” attorney Michael J. Navarre, a former lieutenant commander in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps, said in an interview Thursday.

For Bowersox, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces’ decision is important because it upholds the bad-conduct discharge likely to shadow him the rest of his life. For others still in the military, the 4-1 decision issued Tuesday matters because it clarifies, at least somewhat, the rules that govern them.

In particular, the decision hammers home the fact that soldiers in barracks lack the same privacy protections that civilians enjoy in their homes.

“An individual’s right to possess obscene materials in the privacy of his own home does not extend to (the soldier’s) possession of obscene materials in his shared barracks room,” Judge Margaret A. Ryan wrote, explaining that “the very nature of a shared barracks room increases the risk that obscene materials will be viewed by those who do not wish to view them.”

Child porn is illegal, Ryan emphasized, even when the images do not depict real children.

But, underscoring the tricky legal questions raised, a dissenting judge sided with Bowersox.

“The Constitution does not end at the barracks’ door,” wrote Judge Scott W. Stuckey, a Kansas native appointed by President George W. Bush. “Here, we are dealing with private materials in a private space that, by virtue of (computer) password protections, was inaccessible to others.”

Pornography has been prevalent among the younger male members of the military.

Army veterans like Colby Buzzell, author of “My War: Killing Time in Iraq,” describe extended sessions of viewing pornography on portable DVD players. A Marine Corps veteran of the battle for Fallujah, speaking on condition of anonymity, described how porn DVDs were traded as currency. Military courts see plenty of porn-related cases.

The Air Force, late last year, comprehensively searched the workspaces at more than 100 installations worldwide. In December, officials reported having found 631 “instances of pornography” and 27,959 “inappropriate or offensive items” that ranged from a small Confederate flag and lewd graffiti to, according to the Air Force’s 61-page database, a “profane baseball hat” and a “cardboard cutout of a waitress serving beer.”

“Every airman deserves to be treated with respect. They also deserve to work in a professional environment," Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, said at the time.

No child porn was found during the health-and-welfare inspection sweep, Air Force Lt. Col. Laurel P. Tingley added Thursday.

The porn in Bowersox’s case was discovered in February 2009, after his Fort Bragg roommate reporting seeing troubling images on Bowersox’s computer. A 10th Military Police Battalion investigator obtained a warrant to search the computer and found 318 cartoon images depicting minors engaged in sexual activities.

“The images are created with such realism that they show expressions of pain and pleasure on the child participants’ faces, the children’s shadows on the ground and even depict the leg hairs of the men engaging in sex with the children,” Ryan noted.

Adult porn can pose harder questions. In a 1969 case involving three reels of films found in the upstairs bedroom of a Georgia man, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the right to possess obscene materials in one’s home.

“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,” Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the unanimous court.

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