Cleaning Up the Dirty Bookstores

August 22, 1992

Pornography is painfully objectionable to many citizens. Government censorship is equally abhorrent to many. Finding a balance between those two pillars of society's ethical judgments is a sensitive and difficult task, as evidenced by the agonizing battles fought in courts and communities.

Harford County's attempt to control adult bookstores went into effect last month. Stores selling sexually explicit material must get a special license. License provisions include constructing "peep show" video booths to prevent sexual encounters and providing adequate lighting of the premises. New stores can't be any closer than 1,000 feet to schools, churches and residential neighborhoods.

Joining a growing number of communities in Maryland and throughout the nation, Harford recognizes that these "dirty book" stores are not just garden variety retailers, that the implications of their salacious business demand special regulation. These stores may not be the magnets of criminal and illicit activity that their adversaries claim. But their potential for such should be realistically limited, without violating constitutional freedoms.

Harford's new law requires that sex shop owners give their names, addresses and birthdates; corporate owners must provide the same information, as do employees of these stores. Persons with at least a 10 percent interest in a store must undergo a criminal background check, and the license can be denied for conviction on any of 32 offenses.

In its zeal to regulate the sellers of smut, however, Harford's measure goes too far. A permit can be denied because of the criminal record of a spouse or roommate of an owner, which smacks of regulatory overreach, as the county council was informed before it passed the law. Requiring owners and their companions be purer than preachers in order to dispense permissible pornography is logically indefensible, and unnecessary if the county firmly enforces other provisions of the law.

Three of the four adult bookstores in Harford have challenged the law in state and federal courts, claiming the rules abridge their constitutional right to freedom of expression. A judge has temporarily halted enforcement.

Ownership of existing stores is mostly hidden behind a screen of anonymous corporations and lawyers. Disclosure provisions will make it more difficult for the pornography merchants to operate in Harford County. It's not unreasonable, and courts have sustained similar laws elsewhere. Examining the credentials of spouses and roommates of owners, however, stretches the limit of fairness and reasonableness, and weakens an otherwise responsible law.

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