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Missouri Cracking Down on Racy Billboards

JEFFERSON CITY, MO – Some state lawmakers seem to have the same problem with Missouri highways as they did with the recent Super Bowl halftime show: There’s just too much sex.

They say they don’t want to explain to their children what roadside billboards mean by “XXX” or “live nude dancers.” So the lawmakers want to ban most sexual signs.

Legislation awaiting Senate debate, and a similar bill pending in a House committee, would ban billboards within 1 mile of any state highway from advertising establishments where workers appear nude or where at least 10 percent of the display space is used for pornography.

The bill makes a minor exception for an adult business located near a highway – it could have two signs, one with the business’ name, address, phone number and operating hours, and one that warns minors to keep out. Business would have three years to bring existing signs into compliance.

Supporters said their legislation would clean up a driving distraction that is repulsive to most tourists and residents alike.

“We need to assure that tourists come to the state, (and) that we have a state that’s presentable,” said Rep. Trent Skaggs, D-North Kansas City. “We need to make sure when we have families driving down the road that we don’t have to worry about the children saying, `What’s “XXX” or “totally red hot nude”?'”

But Bill May, executive director of the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association, said restricting one type of advertising could open the door to further restrictions. None of the 16 companies that belong to his organization accept signs from sexually oriented businesses; the organization’s code of ethics forbids it.

“We have mixed feelings on the bills,” May said. “We are concerned they will set a precedent for bans on other politically incorrect businesses or groups.”

If the legislation restricted advertising in other media, such as newspapers, radio or television, it would be more acceptable, he said.

“That being said, at the same time, our membership realizes that what we put up in advertising is visible to everyone,” May said. “It can’t be turned off.”

The western half of the state seems to be where the adult-entertainment signs are most prolific, Skaggs said. By his informal count, there are at least 45 adult-entertainment billboards along Interstate 70 between Kansas City and Columbia.

As part of the landmark 1998 deal with the state, tobacco companies voluntarily agreed not to erect billboard advertisements. But there is no law that restricts the content of billboard advertising.

Skaggs said he thinks the state can legally restrict billboard advertising as long as it allows advertising in other media.

“As long as they have alternatives to advertise somewhere else, then as a legislature we can pass such legislation,” Skaggs said.

But Gerald Ulrich, owner of First Amendment Video in Boonville, disagrees.

“That would be totally wrong. That’s discrimination,” Ulrich said. “If they take one down, they should take everything down.”

Ulrich’s store doesn’t have billboards other than a big lighted sign on its property fronting I-70. That sign, which has a picture of a woman in a bikini, also says “XXX” and “Adult Video Outlet.” That sign would be illegal if the bill becomes law, because no pictures or words other than the store’s name and address would be allowed.

Ulrich vowed to sue the state if it tried to restrict where he could advertise.

“I’m a firm believer in the Constitution – that’s what it was written for,” Ulrich said. “We’re not going to say `I’m going to change it because it doesn’t meet my standards’ or that `I own a John Deere shop versus an adult entertainment shop.'”

Lawmakers said the state could attract more tourists by banning most sexually explicit billboards. But they were unfazed about potentially restricting the economic viability of the adult entertainment stores.

“I think it directly affects tourism. You come into our state and you’re just bombarded with these things that advertise adult businesses,” said Rep. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, the bill’s lead sponsor. “To me, if their business does suffer somewhat, I think it’s well worth the trade-off.”


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