Indecent Proposals 

A reporter reflects on Ravalli Co.’s censorship battle

When I was assigned as a local reporter on the county beat to cover the pornography crisis in Ravalli County five years ago, I was understandably puzzled. I didn’t know there was one.

It started with some phone calls to the newspaper where I worked, asking us to photograph Ravalli County video store owners being awarded plaques from a group called Montana Citizens for Decency through Law (MCDL), for not offering video rentals that were unsuitable for family viewing. Led by Stevensville resident Dallas Erickson, MCDL was suddenly taking its message of the danger of pornography to the general public, and eventually, to the Ravalli County Commissioners, demanding that ordinances be passed to control porn, public indecency and the display of material to minors.

I did some research. Erickson insisted there were places in Ravalli County where children could access pornographic magazines and adult videos. I took a road trip through the valley one Saturday, stopping at every store that sold magazines and rented videos from Sula to Florence. I found four shops that rented adult videos to people willing to show proof of age. Two stores kept the videos in separate rooms and two stores kept them behind a counter, allowing a legal-age patron to look at a book of video covers to make a selection. I found eight stores that sold legal pornographic magazines (Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, etc.). All but two stores used blinder racks behind the counter, and the two stores that had those magazines on an accessible rack had the magazines sealed in plastic covers.

The county had no adult book stores. One had opened briefly on the outskirts of Hamilton in the free-wheeling 1970s, but it was fire-bombed after being in business less than a month. The crime was never solved and the store never reopened. Other than a bi-annual foray from a traveling troupe of Chippendale dancers at taverns in Hamilton and Stevensville, there was no nude dancing in the county.

Undeterred, MCDL next crowded into the county commissioners’ office. The group left the three proposed ordinances with the county commissioners, urging them to pass them into law, exactly as the group had written them. At that and many subsequent public meetings, Erickson acknowledged that the ordinances would be challenged in the courts of Ravalli County. But that was a small price to pay for protecting the county’s innocent women and children, he added.

County attorney George Corn reviewed and opposed the ordinances on the grounds that they were vague, overly broad, and unconstitutional. The county sheriff opposed the ordinances on the grounds that they were unenforceable—and unintelligible—as written. Local book store owner Russ Lawrence sent the proposals to the National Media Coalition, whose opinion was that the ordinances were vague, overly broad, and unconstitutional.

The commissioners compromised. They put the three ordinances—as written by MCDL—on the ballot, letting the county voters decide.

MCDL kept up unrelenting pressure on those who opposed its ideas. Boycotts of book stores and video stores and even a local art gallery were encouraged. Pickets marched in front of video stores in Hamilton, demanding that they quit renting adult videos. When a video store owner in Darby questioned how far the MCDL’s censorship would go if the ordinances passed, Erickson’s next letter warned people about “the Darby video store owner who supported child pornography.”

In Ravalli County 1994 was an off-year election with few offices on the ballot. Only a small percentage of registered voters turned out. Apathy on the part of many community members combined with a major push by MCDL through the county’s churches, passed all three ordinances.

The newspaper I worked for at the time, along with three other businesses and several individual authors, challenged the new ordinances before they could go into effect. A temporary injunction was obtained and the lawsuit was filed.

None of us dreamed the case would take years, but it did. When it came, the final decision was almost anti-climactic. We had always known what it would be.

“Vindicated,” was Russ Lawrence’s feeling at the decision that tossed all three ordinances out. “When I read the proposal five years ago, I knew they were clearly vague and over-broad. I told everyone who would listen that was the case.”

Lawrence said the decision will not change the way he does business. The book store has never carried triple-X material. “We are not going to show up with offensive material—we are sensitive to our community—but we were not going to live under the threat of arbitrary prosecutions which is what we would have been subject to under the ordinances. We had no financial stake in the final outcome of the case. It was a true matter of principle with me.”

Will the present board of county commissioners (all new members) appeal the decision and send the matter to the Montana Supreme Court? Erickson hopes they will. If they do, it will cost county taxpayers more money. And, I believe, they will lose again.

We who fought had a deep conviction that any infringement on the First Amendment was not needed to protect the citizens of Ravalli County from pornography or obscenity. We weren’t willing to give up any of that freedom. The decision is a good one. If it is appealed, we’ll keep fighting.

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