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Colorado Obscenity Bill Targets Books, Films, Plays

Colorado- Booksellers, theater officials and video retailers in Colorado are cringing over the prospect of having to conceal books, films and plays with “sexually explicit” material or face punishment.
The fears have erupted in response to legislation introduced at the Capitol that could land booksellers, performers and others in jail for allowing minors to purchase or view materials deemed harmful to children.

Store displays, live theater performances and libraries are among the areas targeted by the bill.

Some businesses are already scrambling for cover.

At Virgin Megastore on the 16th Street Mall downtown, a shelf of erotic videos was relocated last weekend to the back of the store from a more visible location near the east doors. “Skin” magazines also were moved and placed opposite the erotic videos. The aisle now contains a warning sign in red, white and black letters: “Erotica. Adults Only. 18 y.o. and over to enter.”

Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment. But store clerks, who said they did not have authority to speak for the company and did not want their names used, confirmed that the changes were a direct result of the publicity surrounding the legislation scheduled to be debated today in the state House of Representatives.

While many expect the bill to be approved in the House, it is likely to have a tougher sell in the Senate, where Republicans have an 18-17 majority. Many Senate Democrats oppose the legislation, and at least two Republican senators have said they object to the bill and would likely vote against it.

Still, many people are worried.

“I’m not at all concerned about anything we do in the theater. We do responsible work here. We always will,” said Lester Ward, president of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “But I am concerned that they’re attempting to have theaters listed in the bill as something that needs targeting. I don’t think that’s appropriate at all.”

The measure passed the House Judiciary Committee last week in an 8-3 vote, after bill author Rep. Ted Harvey testified that he had walked through the Virgin store and was appalled to find a section prominently displaying erotic films that he considered harmful to minors.

“Any 5-year-old could see these erotic videos with hard-core pornographic covers,” said Harvey, a Republican from Highlands Ranch. “They are displayed like any other video store from foot level to chest high. I think it’s inappropriate to have those materials harmful to a minor located where they can flip through them.”

Harvey said his goal is to protect people who cannot protect themselves.

“Children, innocent children with no ability to protect themselves, are the No. 1 responsibility of government,” Harvey said.

Harvey said his bill, identical to a measure killed by the legislature in 1997, was prompted by a case in his district involving a sexual predator caught distributing pornographic magazines to minors.

Harvey said he is not out to target any particular business. Three hurdles would have to be met before a violation could occur, he said. The harmful materials would have to depict nudity or sexual activity having a “predominant tendency to appeal to the prurient interest of minors; (that is) patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community concerning what is suitable for minors; (and that) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”

Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store, flinches when she considers the impact of the legislation on her stores, among the largest independent bookstores in the nation.

Meskis said the measure would have a serious financial and social impact on her shops in Lower Downtown and Cherry Creek. One recent morning, Meskis strolled through the second floor of her LoDo store pointing out books in virtually every section that would be suspect if the bill becomes law.

“If this is enacted or enforced, it really puts the bookseller or librarian in a position of censor or at the very least the arbiter of taste,” Meskis said. “I think that’s dangerous to our First Amendment guarantees. It also puts booksellers and others in a perilous position because if we guess wrong about what community standards might be, we could go to jail.”

Meskis said one of her biggest worries is that any of the thousands of books that fill the store’s tall wooden shelves might contain a passage or photo that someone decides is sexually explicit.

“We cannot know as booksellers the content of every book,” Meskis said. “You can’t sit there and read the whole book. How do you determine the essence … the content of every book if this were to become law?”

Meskis said she would be forced to create a store within a store. The larger store would serve adults; the smaller store would be for people under 18 and their parents.

“But what would go into each?” asked Meskis. “Who would make the determination?”

County sheriffs would be among the authorities charged with enforcement. And it would be tough, concedes former Boulder County Sheriff George Epp, head of the Colorado Sheriffs Association. Epp said county sheriffs could potentially be in charge of defining morality. “Enforcement of it certainly would be problematic,” Epp said. Morality, he said, is “something that different individuals view differently.”

 

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