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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Film Classic Ruled Obscene

OKLAHOMA CITY -- For Bob Anderson, it was nothing short of divine providence that he was listening to a Christian radio station when the talk show host began a lengthy diatribe against the Oscar-winning German film "The Tin Drum.''


"He said it could be judged pornographic,'' said Anderson, director of Oklahomans for Children and Families, "and that's all I needed to hear.''


Within 72 hours, Anderson, 67, managed to get local law-enforcement authorities and a judge to agree that the 1979 anti-Nazi film that has been considered high art for nearly two decades violated state obscenity laws and was in fact contraband.


The result was bizarre police raids on video stores and private homes last week, which has created a run on the critically acclaimed film and set off a furor and media frenzy that has even the state judge distancing himself from the controversy.


"It was just an advisory opinion,'' explained a besieged Oklahoma County District Judge Richard Freeman, who said the police asked him to confirm that a scene of a young boy engaging in oral sex with a teenage girl did violate the state's obscenity statute. "There is no force of law behind it. I wasn't out to set any precedents here.''


But on Wednesday, plainclothes police officers acted on Freeman's opinion and seized copies of the movie from six video outlets, and went so far as to knock on the doors of at least two Blockbuster customers to confiscate their copies.


One of the customers happened to be an ACLU official, who had picked up the film because he had heard that Anderson's group -- a conservative organization that targets pornography -- had the film in its sights.


Michael Camfield, director of development for the state American Civil Liberties Union, said Blockbuster gave his name to three police officers, who showed up at his home and asked for the film. Camfield gave it to them and immediately filed a complaint with the ACLU.


Since then, said Joann Bell, executive director of the local ACLU, the organization has been inundated with messages of support from around the country and calls from reporters from Germany.


Over the weekend, "The Tin Drum's'' director, Volker Schlondorff, weighed in with a humorous statement faxed to the Tulsa World. He suggested that the police might also want to pick up the Gunter Grass novel, from which the film is adapted, "in all public libraries as well as in all private homes worldwide. A few million copies, I guess.'' While legal experts agree that the film could indeed violate state pornography statues, they also say the parties acted impulsively.


Sunday, lawyers and officials for the civil rights group met here to discuss their options, including filing suit on grounds that the police and video store may have violated the federally protected privacy rights of the store's patrons.


In addition, there is a question of whether U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment decisions, which say that artistic merit should be considered when defining obscenity, could affect the interpretation of state law.


"No one disputes that child pornography is evil, but we cannot turn our cultural decisions over to people who would put a fig leaf in front of a Michelangelo statue,'' said Michael Salem, an attorney for the local ACLU.


Furthermore, Salem said, "it is a violation of federal law to acquire the records of a customer at a video store without a court order or a search warrant.''


Salem is referring to the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits anyone from obtaining or divulging information about customers without their explicit written permission. Its enactment was prompted by outraged lawmakers following Robert Bork's contentious Senate confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court because reporters had obtained a list of movies rented by Bork and his family.


Jonathan Baskin, senior vice president for corporate communications at Blockbuster, said the video giant is investigating what happened at a particular Oklahoma City store, one of 6,000 nationwide.


"It is a company policy never to give out names. ... We're in touch with our legal counsel,'' said Baskin, who didn't dispute that employees turned over the identities of the customers. "We take this very seriously. This is not only a legal issue for us, it's a moral issue. The employees know the policy. We don't know yet what went on in the store.''


Baskin said the chain, a division of Viacom, doesn't have many copies of "The Tin Drum'' in its stores. Out of 140 outlets in Dallas, for example, there are only four copies of the film.


Set in wartime Germany, it is an allegorical tale of a young boy named Oskar, who, faced with Nazi horrors, literally refuses to grow up.


While critically acclaimed, the film seemed to be collecting dust in these parts until Anderson turned his spotlight on it.


Tulsa District Attorney Bill LaFortune, alarmed by the situation in Oklahoma City, said he tried to rent a copy Friday to make his own determination if it violated state pornography laws. He was told that the one copy owned by the public library had been checked out only eight times in the past 12 years -- but now there was a waiting list of 10 people for it.


He also couldn't locate a copy at any video store in the city, so he sent an investigator to the district attorney's office in Oklahoma City -- which, of course, had plenty of confiscated copies on hand.


LaFortune, who has asked an assistant to view the film, said that if the video does depict a child under 18 in a explicit act, it could violate state law. However, he won't be doing any roundups anytime soon, he said.


"We're going to proceed very cautiously,'' the district attorney said, noting that he would have to consider Supreme Court precedent on what constitutes art vs. obscenity before taking any action.


At issue, he said, are two landmark opinions: a 1973 ruling that said that obscenity can be legally defined as something that appeals to prurient interest in sex, and lacks "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value''; and a 1982 case that set a tighter standard for defining obscenity when it involves children engaged in sexual acts in films.


"Clearly the film is highly regarded and has been around a long time,'' LaFortune said. "I have real concerns about the action taken in Oklahoma City.''