Hook, obscenity and free speech on Facebook

In recognition of FIRE’s expansion into off-campus free speech advocacy work, summer intern Melanie Nolan explores the implications of an obscenity debate in a private Facebook group.

Last winter, I fell in love with crochet. I learned completely from Youtube videos and started by making scarvesthen stuffed animalsand eventually little frog hats. This led me to a private Facebook group, which connected me to hundreds of crocheters around the world who posted photos and swapped tips.

Everything was harmonious. Until that is no longer the case.

Shortly after I joined, the group erupted in controversy. A member posted a photo of a unique creation: a rainbow striped penis plushie with a little face on it. The penis was crocheted, but no one had ever posted anything like that in the group before.

Usually, comments on group posts were supportive, with group members complimenting each other’s creations, offering friendly tips or advice, and asking for a link to the model. It was the first time an object had encountered vitriol.

“How can you post something so obscene on this page? someone wrote furiously. “There could be children here!” Others agreed, citing how they crochet to escape the kind of raw, searing sensuality that abounds on the rogue internet. For them, the crochet group was a haven, and they didn’t consent to seeing the penis, real or not.

No reasonable person could confuse this with an actual body part.

But just as many members of the group mocked the naysayers. They found the Rainbow Penis funny and creative, and soon others were posting photos of their own crochet penises. One of them asked for the model, made dozens of penises and displayed them again and again in the group in protest. Others simply “hated” existing positive or negative comments, or posted angry face emoji reactions.

It eventually got to the point where members of the group called on the Facebook police to intervene. Most private Facebook groups are controlled by moderators who organize posts, enforce rules, approve new members, and in some cases ban participants. Many members called on the moderators to make a statement condemning the rainbow penis. The moderators remained silent, probably hoping the controversy would die down. This was not the case.

Was there free speech in the world of crochet Facebook groups? This question has become the object of an intense and ruthless debate.

Free speech scholars have long debated obscenity. The Supreme Court has set the standard for what constitutes obscenity in Miller vs. California. According to the Miller Test, a work is obscene if: (1) the average person applying community standards would find the work appealing to lustful interests – in other words, arousing – which, given the item in question, did not seem realistic here; (2) the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive manner, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law; and (3) the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific merit.

While the crocheted penis would certainly not lead to the imprisonment of its craftsman, it did lead to a fruitful internal discussion. Penis supporters argued that it did not break any of the group’s existing rules. (Crochet group rules stated that members were not allowed to illegally upload patterns they did not create, post items they did not crochet, or post uncrocheted content. ) This was a crochet item made by the member who posted it, the pattern matched the description and the member was not trying to sell the item. By those standards, the position was certainly authorized. However, whether or not it is should being allowed in a private, casual Facebook group was another matter altogether.

Anti-penis advocates continued to claim the item was obscene and offensive. Certainly, if someone uploaded a naked photo of a real appendage, the moderators would quickly delete it. Why should this crochet object be different?

In response to this point, the pro-penis faction claimed that the crocheted penis was rainbow, striped, and had a smiley face sewn onto it. No reasonable person could confuse this with an actual body part. The fighting continued. Some members posted about how they were leaving the group altogether because space had turned toxic. Soon the group was inundated with talk on the subject. The usual thread recommendations, project images, and tips were pushed down. Something had to give.

Freedom of speech is essential to the functioning of a democracy, whether it is discussed in the context of a hooked penis or the Constitution itself.

Finally, the moderators made a statement. The polemic was tiring and distracting. The group was, at its core, about crocheting, not about debating the literary or artistic merit of a crocheted version of the male anatomy. The moderators made a statement: Those who were offended were free to leave. This “eye conversion” to avoid further exposure is reminiscent Cohen v. California assertion that offended persons should “avert their eyes”.

In a way, the members of the Facebook group “looked the other way”. Following this incident, the Facebook group split into two, with one group remaining and allowing lewd thread art, and the other moving into more family-friendly categories.

Both sides were pretty happy with it and the controversy died down. But the Penisgate saga raises some interesting questions about free speech. What is objectionable and what can be censored? Who decides in case of disagreement? This experience and the fallout from it really allowed me to think critically about freedom of expression issues.

Culturally, I think there’s a tendency to think that issues of free speech and obscenity are so abstract that lawyers, politicians, and legislators have to take them into account. But in reality, these problems touch us closely and surround us. Freedom of speech is essential to the functioning of a democracy, whether it is discussed in the context of a hooked penis or the Constitution itself.

Melanie Nolan is a rising senior at Skidmore College and a FIRE summer intern.