Fighting pornography in Harford

July 19, 1995

Like many other communities, Harford County has been trying for years to implement a law to regulate pornographic book stores.

This month, it received another setback when the federal appeals court in Richmond ruled that Harford's ordinance did not provide for prompt judicial review of rejected license applications. "The licensing scheme lacks essential procedural safeguards," the court decided, resulting in "unconstitutional prior restraint on protected speech."

The ruling is consistent with other federal court decisions that insist on prompt decisions where restraint on protected freedom of speech is at issue. In fact, the same court ruled the same day that the Prince George's County adult bookstore law has the same constitutional flaw: indefinite delay of decision.

Four years since Harford County started the legislative ball in motion, it is still unable to enforce the ordinance. The law was remanded for review back to federal district court in Baltimore. More than a year ago, that court ruled the licensing delay was improper, resulting in County Council amendments to the law.

Now the county must decide whether to continue the battle for licensing power of these sex stores, either in the Supreme Court or lower courts, or to abandon that provision and implement other regulations within the law.

Enough is enough. If Harford wants to regulate this sort of shadowy enterprise, for the myriad social reasons argued at months of hearings, then it should make every effort to achieve a defensible law. That probably means giving up on the license provision and enforcing the conditions of operation for these establishments.

Yes, the bookstore operators still may challenge the other sections of the Harford law in court. But various forms of regulation over these operations have been upheld in other jurisdictions by the federal courts. So the task is not impossible.

Harford has refrained from enforcing its law during the legal appeals process, now nearly three years old. The same four adult bookstores in Harford are still operating but no new competitors have opened. So the matter has not seemed an urgent one.

But if Harford is to have a credible law that cleans up these dirty bookstores, instead of an ordinance floating in legal limbo, the county should abandon licensing efforts and vigorously defend the sections already approved by the high court.

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