Smut Law: Harass if You Can't Ban

COMMENT

March 13, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

The County Council passed a couple of amendments last week to Harford's 1992 adult bookstore law, setting a time limit for approval of store license applications and permitting existing stores to operate while applying.

Not much news in that. Except that existing stores selling sexually explicit materials have been operating for nearly two years since the legislation was first signed into law. And that Harford has yet to receive a license application from any pornography purveyor.

The way things stand now, the county probably won't even require applications until next year. You see, the county and the bookstores' owners agreed not to enforce the law until after all legal appeals were exhausted.

Last month the smut shops asked the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a ruling by a Baltimore federal judge that upheld the Harford County law.

(Judge Walter E. Black Jr. faulted the law on two minor points, which resulted in the council amendments discussed last week.)

Lawyers for the bookstores suggest they may take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, which would easily forestall enforcement this year.

The delay in licensing the porno parlors has not encouraged newcomers to race into the market. Four were operating when the law was enacted, and four are open today in the same locations. It's no growth business.

The stores are not operating in the heart of the community, but in mostly nondescript buildings along major highways; and they're not blatantly advertising their salacious wares.

(The law would restrict new stores from opening within 1,000 feet of schools, churches and residential neighborhoods.)

But there has been no respite for the meretricious merchants of Harford, even while the law is held in abeyance.

The state's attorney has raided and prosecuted these sex shops for all manner of technicalities, including the "illegal display" of magazine covers and the illegal "re-recording" of sexually graphic videotapes. (No indication that he's seeking payment of lost copyright royalties to the original filmmakers, however.)

One shop owner sued the county and got a consent agreement that stopped the repeated seizure by police of its merchandise.

County officials have linked these establishments to the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, to prostitution, drug dealing, fencing of stolen loot and to the unsolved murder of a teen-ager.

That may well be true, but it raises the troubling question whether other venues are not also geographically connected to reports of such illicit behavior. (We're not talking about scenes of the crimes, because the porn shops are seldom the actual site of legally proven offenses.) What about the incidence of crimes reported in or near shopping centers, bars, laundromats and other retail establishments?

But the arguments have already been made, and the law enacted. It calls for substantial lighting and open peep-show booths to prevent any of these alleged criminal acts from occurring out of sight of employees, who are legally responsible for preventing violations on the premises. Owners and employees must pass a criminal background check. The establishments must pass health and building code inspections.

Why, you might ask, does the public want these smut stores operated only by those of impeccable repute and looking as sparkling bright and clean as a hospital surgery?

It would seem to make more sense to have a convicted felon with a bad attitude manning the counter and maintain hygiene standards and illumination levels that barely match those of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Those unsavory conditions would be more likely to deter all but the "fringes of society" from patronizing these purveyors of sin.

Remember, the Harford law doesn't monitor the background of customers. At least not yet. And not because a lot of Harford countians wouldn't love to.

Because the point of the county's law is not to regulate, but to eradicate these dirty book stores, no matter what some legalists may argue.

Officials know, however, that they could not legally ban these establishments, that the constitutional barriers are too high and that personal judgments of acceptable communication are too difficult to impose on the general public.

But make the law too demanding, the inspections too frequent and too unpleasant, the shady commerce too much exposed to the public light -- then the padlock on the door will become that much closer to clicking shut.

Still, most of us don't feel comfortable with "adult" bookstores in our midst, to say nothing of our neighborhoods. We worry about children and their safety.

Even if we do not dare to think about the content of such explicit books and movies in these places, we think about what impact pornography has on those individuals who consume it and the impact those people have on the community.

And we wonder whether the abstract freedom of speech is worth the potential threat to our sense of decency and public safety.

And then we say, well, why not just make it tough enough on them so they'll decide to go away?

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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