ORLANDO, Fla. - Authorities have arrested a Lakeland, Fla., man on obscenity charges after investigating his graphic Web site, which has gained international attention for enabling U.S. soldiers to post pictures of war dead on the Internet.
The charges against Christopher Michael Wilson, a former police officer, are likely to reignite the debate about obscene material in the Internet age. It also raises questions about whether the federal government played a part in motivating the prosecution.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said late Friday that the 300 obscenity-related charges against Wilson all involve sexual content posted on his Web site, not graphic war-scene images posted by soldiers.
"It is the most horrific, vile, perverted sexual conduct," Judd said. "It is as vile, as perverted, as non-normal sexual conduct, which rises to the level of obscenity, as we've ever investigated."
Judd, however, said he could not describe the sex acts because the words "would put me in the same arena as the subject." He added, "They really can't be printed in the newspaper."
Army officials said they could not confirm whether photographs on Wilson's Web site, presumably showing Iraqi and Afghani war dead, were posted by U.S. soldiers.
An Islamic civil-rights group said it was disappointed that the Army did not pursue criminal charges. Last week, Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations said, "For this to be treated in a manner that suggests the Army does not take this seriously is only going to further harm our nation's image and interests around the world, particularly in the Muslim world."
Wilson, 27, was allowing soldiers access to normally paid portions of his Web site in exchange for the graphic war-scene shots or proof that they were fighting in Iraq.
Wilson's site, not named here because of its graphic content and name, still had grisly images of war dead as of yesterday evening.
Judd said none of the 20 films and 80 photographs that brought about the charges involves pictures of the war dead. But Judd confirmed that his detectives spoke with officials with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division before arresting Wilson on Friday.
Wilson's Web site and his deal with U.S. soldiers have been the subject of many recent news articles.
"Obviously, we knew the military had an interest in this," Judd said.
Judd said that his obscenity charges have nothing to do with the Army's interest in the case, and he maintained in a lengthy interview that he was not pressured to investigate Wilson.
"We unilaterally initiated the investigation without any support, help or encouragement from the federal government," Judd said.
But Wilson's lawyer, Larry Walters, questioned the motivations behind the prosecution, noting that there may be hundreds of thousands of Internet sites with explicit material.
"Why are they getting into this battle now, and why Chris Wilson?" Walters asked. "It's the military that potentially stands to have the greatest gripe."
Walters argued that local community standards, the guiding principle behind the implementation of obscenity laws, cannot be applied to the Internet, a global venue.
"Any obscenity charge against any Web site content or Internet content is unconstitutional," said Walters, who specializes in First Amendment law. "There is no commonality based on just geography anymore. It's not the 1800s anymore, not here. But I don't know about Polk County."
He said part of Wilson's mission "is telling the truth about the war going on in Iraq."
Wilson was being held in the Polk County Jail, with bail set at $151,000. Charges include counts of distribution of obscene material, offering to distribute obscene material and possession of obscene material with intent to distribute.
Before arresting Wilson, Polk County Judge Angela Cowden found probable cause that the images and tapes were obscene, Judd said.
The obscenity statute is one of the few in which a judge must make such a determination before an arrest is made. Investigators also obtained a search warrant and removed computers from Wilson's home.
They will be looking for customer lists and other documents to assist the investigation. Information that Army investigators might need in their search will be made available to them, Judd said.
Though Wilson's equipment was removed, his Web site remained in operation because the servers used to run the site are overseas.
Anthony Colarossi writes for the Orlando Sentinel.