Who's Watching Big Brother?
by Liz Highleyman
In this issue:
A New York State Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in late February that New York City could go ahead with a drastic rezoning plan that could do away with most of the city's sex-oriented businesses. The rezoning plan was passed in 1995 as part of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attempt to "clean up" the city, particularly the concentration of sex business in Times Square. The zoning plan would limit sex-oriented businesses such as peep shows and porn stores to industrial areas of the city. Under the new ordinance, sex businesses cannot be in residential areas or within 500 feet of a school, place of worship, or another sex business.
City officials estimate that the rezoning plan will force all but about 20 of the more than 150 sex businesses in New York's five boroughs to close or relocate. The ordinance has been protested by sex shop owners, sex workers, civil libertarians, and queer activists including the group Sex Panic!
The rezoning plan has been under legal challenge for two years. The recent appeals court ruling said that the city could carry out the plan because its purpose was to reduce crime, not to limit freedom of expression. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that cities can regulate where sex businesses are located, but cannot ban them entirely.
It looked like sex businesses might get a reprieve when federal judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum granted a temporary restraining order against the enforcement of the rezoning ordinance after civil libertarians and lawyers representing sex businesses argued that the plan was unconstitutional. After a week of consideration, however, she decided to uphold the state appeals court ruling. Opponents next took their case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in early March, once again delaying enforcement of the ordinance.
The federal court hearing was held April 27 and a decision is forthcoming.
In Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the widely read Alberta Report magazine has called for the withdrawal of state arts funding for erotic literature. The magazine reprinted without permission excerpts from bi polyamorous playwright and poet Timothy Anderson's collection Neurotic Erotic in an attempt to drum up public sentiment against arts funding. Copies of the poems were also sent to politicians and conservative religious groups.
Alberta Report claimed that the poems "celebrate bestiality, pedophilia, sadomasochism, blasphemy and a host of other perversions." Anderson sought a legal opinion that found that the book does not violate criminal code obscenity guidelines.
The magazine wants the state to stop subsidizing contentious material and wants the government to judge the content of works to be funded, which is currently done by peer juries.
All provincial arts funding in Alberta comes from lottery proceeds, not tax money. No money was given directly to produce Neurotic Erotic, but the book's publisher does receive public block grant funding.
In March, police raided a new adult bookstore opened by porn publisher Larry Flynt and his brother Jimmy in Cincinnati, Ohio. Flynt opened the store, which sells adult videos, magazines, and sex toys, to challenge the city's laws regulating sex-oriented businesses. On April 7, the Flynts were indicted and charged with 15 counts, including charges of pandering obscenity and disseminating matter harmful to juveniles.
If convicted on all charges, the brothers face 24 years in prison. The store allegedly sold a porn video to a 14-year-old boy. According to Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters, the videos in question were "the most vile, degrading matter ever sold in Hamilton County." Larry Flynt was previously convicted of obscenity in Cincinnati in 1977 for selling Hustler magazine. He maintains that community standards have changed in the ensuing two decades.
Numerous privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have denounced a new federal proposal that would permit broad access to personal medical records. The proposal was drafted by Senators Robert Bennett (R-Utah) and Jim Jeffords (R-Vermont). It would remove many existing restrictions on the disclosure of medical information by healthcare providers and public health agencies, and would override state laws that ensure greater confidentiality.
The proposal follows a recommendation made by Health and Human Secretary Donna Shalala last fall that would give greater access to medical records to law enforcement personnel. Opponents say the proposal could have a particularly negative effect on people with HIV and other sensitive medical conditions.
In the U.K., an appeals judge upheld the conviction of a group of gay men known as the Bolton 7, who were arrested for engaging in consensual homosexual activity in a private home. However, the men were not sentenced to jail time, and instead received probation and community service.
Charges were brought because one of the men was 17 and a half years old at the time of the alleged sexual activity, six months short of England's age of consent. The two men who had sex with the younger man were entered into the country's sex offenders' registry.
According to Peter Tachell of the gay rights group OutRage!, five of the seven men were convicted under the same gross indecency law that was used to convict Oscar Wilde in 1895. Three were prosecuted under a buggery law that dates back to 1533.
The Bolton 7 received letters of support from politicians, religious leaders, and human rights groups. OutRage member John Hunt said, "The Bolton 7 case demonstrates that the gay community remains vulnerable to police witch-hunts. These antiquated laws, which are still on the statute books, can be activated at any time. It is a warning against apathy and complacency."
In April, U.S. District Court judge Gene Carter struck down a recently passed pornography law that would have regulated images created by computers. The Portland, Maine decision is the first ruling on the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996.
The law attempted to prohibit images of adults that were altered to make them appear to be younger than 18 years old. Carter ruled that the wording of the law was unconstitutionally vague. Under the previous child porn law, only images that actually involved children were illegal. The case is likely to be appealed to the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston and perhaps ultimately to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court defeat of the Communications Decency Act in June 1997 has not deterred legislators who want to restrict sexually explicit material on the Internet. In March, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill by Senator Dan Coats (R-Indiana) that would require providers of online content considered harmful to minors to prohibit access by children.
Representatives Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) and Jim Greenwood (R-Pennsylvania) plan to introduce a companion bill in the House.
Coats' bill is written to overcome some of the Supreme Court's objections to the CDA. It is restricted to commercial services and uses a narrower legal standard for acceptable material based on harm to minors rather than being "offensive" or "indecent."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance journalist and health educator. She is editor of the pansexual leather community newspaper Cuir Underground and associate editor of the anthology Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions (Haworth Press, 1995).
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