B’root obscenity laws crash and burn 

A trio of anti-obscenity ordinances have come full circle in Ravalli County, from being proposed in 1994 to being rejected in 1999 to being reborn in 2002.

Last week that circle closed for good when the Montana Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Ravalli County Commissioners on a district court decision three years ago, which ruled that the voter-approved ordinances are unconstitutional.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice Karla Gray agreed with the plaintiffs—including six individuals, the Ravalli Republic and a video software company—and declined to consider the central issue raised by the county, namely, whether counties can enact ordinances that are more strict than state law.

Even if the Supreme Court agreed with Ravalli County, Gray wrote, the end result would be the same, because the anti-obscenity ordinances were too broad and vague.

“Two of the rationales [vagueness and overbreadth] would still pertain and the order and judgment enjoining the County from enforcing the ordinances would remain in effect,” Gray wrote.

In 1994, voters approved the three ordinances—which would have prohibited the distribution of obscene materials, public acts of indecency, and the exposure of children to obscenity—after commissioners placed them on the ballot rather than approving or rejecting the ordinances themselves.

The measures were promptly challenged and in November 1999, District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton struck them down. He ruled against the first ordinance because its broad construction violated protected speech. He ruled against the first and the third ordinance on the grounds that they were too vague.

Langton also ruled that all three ordinances exceeded the county’s authority to enact statutes more strict than state law, which formed the basis of the county’s subsequent appeal.

Although last week’s Supreme Court ruling was unfavorable to the county, it keeps alive the effort to put an anti-obscenity law on the books, since the ruling didn’t address whether counties can enact ordinances stricter than state law.

“There is, however, nothing in the order and judgment which prohibits the County from adopting a new ordinance,” Gray wrote.

This is exactly the outcome anticipated by the petitioners who first presented the anti-obscenity ordinances in 1994. In May 2002, Dallas Erickson of Help Our Moral Environment presented two revised petitions on the distribution of obscene materials and the exposure of children to obscenity.

Faced with another five-year delay and a mounting bill for legal fees, commissioners opted to sent the proposed ordinances straight to district court for a constitutional review.

The new ordinances are currently on the desk of the same man who struck them down three years ago: Judge Jeffrey Langton.

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