U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 famously said he could not define hard-core pornography, but he knew it when he saw it.
For the city of Spokane, where people see it has been the issue. The City Council passed an ordinance in 2001 forbidding the location of hard-core sex shops anywhere within 750 feet of schools, churches, libraries, even other pornography shops, which started drawing protesters as far back as the 1980s.
The shops have been criticized for their appearance, their effect on respectable neighboring businesses, and the clientele they attract, although complaints to law enforcement have been relatively few. But their very existence raises First Amendment issues like those before the Supreme Court in 1964, 1966 and 1973, when the court fixed on the criteria that have remained the accepted definition of obscenity ever since.
Some sex shop owners could not take the heat, or conform to the restrictions embodied in the Spokane ordinance, so they moved on. Not so Hollywood Erotic Boutiques, which had the checkbook to defend its operations and sap the city’s legal defense budget. The legal bill has been estimated at around $500,000, with the city repeatedly prevailing in court.
Still, the “boutiques” are open, the litigation continues and the bills mount while the city cannot provide adequate resources for law enforcement or other, higher priorities.
But an end may be in sight.
City officials are discussing a settlement that includes an updated ordinance giving the offending and offensives stores five years to close, and the conclusion of the litigation. An alternative proposal that would have grandfathered stores open before 2001 did not get much support when it was circulated earlier this year, and properly so.
An open-ended agreement would reward Hollywood, Calif.-based owners for violating the 2001 city ordinance, which was modeled on similar ordinances in other cities that have passed legal muster.
In fact, the five-year sunset period may be nothing more than a face/money-saving measure for city and stores alike.
The Internet, where an estimated 40 percent of traffic is pornography, is killing off store-front sex shops, just as it has other businesses. The demand will always be there. The Web at least keeps most of it away from the public square. The in-your-face lingerie shops can remain where they are.
The proposed ordinance must be passed by the Planning Commission before it reaches the City Council, probably sometime next month. Enactment, and related settlement, would check off one more longtime municipal irritant since Mayor David Condon took office.
On the long list of priorities, it may not be much, but we know progress when we see it.