Defining pornography Howard battle: County Council must clarify new law on adult book and video stores.

January 14, 1998

IT IS NOT TOO LATE for the Howard County Council to correct an oversight in its new ordinance regulating adult bookstores. While they worked to balance First Amendment rights against community opposition to pornography, council TC members created a law that failed to clarify what qualifies as an adult book or video store.

There is no question that the Pack Shack in Ellicott City and Adult Video and Books in Elkridge fit the definition. Porn is their business.

Less clear are such enterprises as Glenelg Video in western Howard and the West Coast Video store several hundred yards away from the Pack Shack.

Glenelg Video and West Coast Video sell or rent adult material, but "mainstream" fare is the mainstay of their operations.

A week after the ordinance took effect it became obvious that its language is not specific enough.

It defines an adult store as a business "where a significant or substantial portion of the stock in trade is characterized by an emphasis on matters depicting, describing or relating to sexual activities." That's like telling drivers they will break the law if driving "substantially" over the 55 mph limit. Could a motorist argue that driving 60 mph was lawful?

The council must decide in numerical terms what it had in mind, instead of using the words "significant or substantial."

This should not be difficult. Local governments distinguish restaurants that sell liquor from taverns by basing the definition on receipts of liquor sales.

Other jurisdictions have provided guidance. Anne Arundel County defines adult video stores as those designating at least one-fifth of their floor space to pornography. In Prince George's County, the threshold is 10 percent of stock.

Arriving at a number also would bolster Howard County's assertion that the ordinance is about protecting neighborhoods, not censorship. Stores could be allowed to block off no more than 10 or 20 percent of their space or stock for adult materials before being defined as adult businesses.

Perhaps there are porn opponents who would prefer to banish all adult books and materials from the county, but those who picketed the Pack Shack never raised a whisper against West Coast Video across U.S. 40. Stores looking for a niche to compete in the market need to know where the line is before they can obey it.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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