The man who gained fame and fortune by penning novels that tricked millions of readers into thinking lawyers are suave characters that with no writing, research, and or deference to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are able to combat injustice, racism, and corporate greed, has recently apologized for what’s been described as a verbal gaffe in an interview with a British newspaper.
John Grisham came to the defense of the most universally despised class of American criminals, sex offenders, and specifically those that view Internet child pornography. I’ve been a John Grisham fan since I learned to read, seeing Matthew McConaughey as a chiseled, scotch sipping, modern day Atticus Finch, or Matt Damon stopping domestic abuse and a greedy HMO all in ninety minutes is what made me want to become a lawyer. Grisham performs significant charitable work and public good in the legal community, despite his ill-advised comments I’ll still enjoy his books and movies.
Here’s what Grisham is quoted as saying, for context his statements came during a larger conversation about mass incarceration in America, “we have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child.”
First of all, it seems odd for a man with as big a platform as Grisham to address mass incarceration and choose “60 year old white men” as the demographic to carry the mantle for.
Anecdotally, Grisham was talking about sixty-year-old white male lawyers, he continued, “a good buddy from law school[s] drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labeled ‘sixteen year old wanabee hookers or something like that’ . . . . So he went there. Downloaded some stuff- it was 16-year-old girls who looked 30. “He shouldn’t’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn’t 10-year old boys. He didn’t touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: FBI.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that quote: the implication that men looking at underage girls is less repugnant because it comports with a heterosexual norm; the assumption that a sixteen year old girl is less deserving of victim status than a younger boy; and, the conclusory notion that there’s a meaningful causal connection between a drinking problem and wanting to look at pictures of naked sixteen year old children.
However, what Grisham’s quote screams, is technological illiteracy. I was confident enough that Grisham was wrong in categorizing the internet as a place where the illegal is indistinguishably intermingled with the legal that I took a deep breath, pushed thoughts of Snowden aside, and typed into Google—searching for statistics and legal sources on the “accidental” viewing of child pornography.
Some comic relief immediately ensued as my results were mostly law firm websites; apparently child pornography “accidents” happen frequently enough to support a bona fide practice area. However, the main document of substance was an extensive 2012 report from Congress on Internet Child Pornography. The executive summary is worth reading, it describes Federal Law in this arena as a well constructed and scientifically validated enforcement regime. As polarized as Congress currently is, thankfully, everyone still opposes child porn.
The report makes clear that the nearly exclusive medium of child pornography is Peer-to-Peer Networking (P2P). Remember Napster, well according to the report “[u]nlike Napster, today’s P2P networks operate without the use of centralized servers.” The report continues, “the absence of a central authority and easy accessibility to images have attracted child pornography offenders to P2P networks.”
I think it’s common knowledge among millennials, but not sixty-year old white men, that if there were a “seedy neighborhood” of the Internet, it’s P2P networking. I’m sure if I categorically condemn them somebody could find one account of someone sharing their wedding photos on a P2P network. But if they’re above categorical condemnation, it’s just barely.
While Grisham is probably imagining his friend accidentally typing “sixteen- year-old hooker wannabes .com” instead of “eighteen-year-old hooker wannabes .com” into the search bar of his iPad, Congresses’ report makes clear, this is not likely what happened.
The technologically illiterate should need to learn that the incredible connectivity the Internet has brought to society is morally neutral. The Federal government articulates in its report that this connectivity creates a nearly impenetrable digital dark alley. In which children can be perpetually victimized, images proliferate exponentially, and the difficulty in catching the offenders necessitates laws that can serve as powerful specific and general deterrents. Questions of digital anonymity are among the most pressing new challenges for legislatures and judges.
People are quick to champion anonymity when it means they can download (steal) episodes of their favorite HBO show for free, not comprehending that their use of a P2P network enables those using P2P for more sinister purposes to hide in the crowd. Someone should have told John Grisham that the Internet is bigger than just the bar where you type www. ; or maybe just that on P2P networks you can also download free copies of his books.