Opponents of proposed anti-obscenity ordinances said Wednesday night the measures would violate personal choice in ways that could reach beyond sexually oriented businesses.
The group met at Venture Theater to discuss two ballot measures that will go to voters in Yellowstone County on June 6. One seeks to impose criminal penalties on those who sell or distribute "obscene materials." The other would limit operations at sexually oriented businesses.
Several speakers worried that subjective questions of taste could produce a chilling effect on sex education efforts, public displays of art, and commerce that's already restricted to adults.
The proposed obscenity ordinance defines something as obscene if "the average person, applying contemporary adult standards, taken as a whole, would find that the material appeals to the prurient interest in sex" and that it "lacks serious literary artistic, political or scientific value." Despite language protecting "scientific value," Stacy James, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Montana, worried about how the ordinance would affect sex education in Yellowstone County.
Already, the agency has difficulty getting into local schools to educate teens about their bodies, sexually responsible behavior and proper use of birth control, James said, and the attitudes about sex that inform the ordinances could exaggerate those problems.
"We're being censored right now," James said. "There's no doubt that it's an issue."
Lucinda Butler, the president of Rimrock Opera Company's board of directors, pointed to language that criminalizes performances found to be "offensive to anyone." She wondered how the ordinance would affect the opera company's decisions about what operas to produce. Many famous works are commonly staged with nudity, frank sexual themes and other elements that some might deem offensive, she said.
"This could impact the arts, newspapers, the library and even the mall, where they've already had complaints about the (mannequins) at Victoria's Secret," she said.
The forum was sponsored by PRIDE, a statewide gay rights organization, Planned Parenthood and The Yellowstone AIDS Project. Of the 25 people who attended, all but a handful oppose the measures.
Mae Woo, one of the few supporters there, said only material that is "patently offensive" would be criminal and that protections in the ordinance render many of the group's concerns unfounded.
"It's not censoring operas, artworks, literary works or any of that stuff," Woo said. It targets material that is "so offensive and so lacking in social value that it is denied First Amendment protection."
Several responded they were loath to have Woo, her fellow supporters or any government entity responsible for determining what is obscene on their behalf.
"I think what it boils down to is your reassurances are not very reassuring," JoAnne Beringer said.
Some questioned why the county commissioners were pressing the issue when, they argued, it was sure to prompt costly litigation at the tax payers' expense. Sarah Butler asked how much it would cost to enforce the ordinances and from where the money would come.
The proposed obscenity ordinance will be discussed during a joint city-county meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. today at Billings Logan International Airport.