Alabama enacts ‘toughest anti-obscenity act in the nation’

Friday, May 1, 1998

Alabama Gov. Fob James signed into law Wednesday a comprehensive bill that primary sponsor Sen. Tom Butler calls the “toughest anti-obscenity act in the nation.”

Senate Bill 607, which both the House and Senate passed unanimously, contains myriad provisions, some of which would:

  • criminalize the distribution of material that is “harmful to minors”;
  • prohibit any business establishment from presenting nude dancing without opaque covering over the breasts and genital areas;
  • make it unlawful to sell “any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs”;
  • prohibit adult-only enterprises from being located “within 1,000 feet of any church, place of worship, church bookstore, public park, public housing project, daycare center, public or private school, college, recreation center, skating rink, video arcade, public swimming pool, private residence or any other place frequented by minors”;
  • allow local governments to “restrict the type of advertising that the business establishment can display outside the establishment.”

The law's supporters say it is designed to “protect children from exposure to obscenity … without impinging on the First Amendment rights of free speech.”

However, at least one civil-liberties expert believes the law does impinge on First Amendment free-speech rights.

Martin McCaffery, president of the ACLU of Alabama, said: “Since it was done to protect minors, the legislators didn't want to vote against it. You have to remember it is an election year. This law is a typically goofily written, badly researched piece of Alabama legislation.

“The Alabama Legislature is as good about obscenity as they are about prayer. They need to check the Constitution, but they don't believe it applies to them anyway,” he said.

McCaffery said he is particularly dismayed with the law's definition of an adult bookstore or adult video store, which is defined as “a commercial establishment in which is offered for sale or rent any book, video, film or other medium which depicts nudity or sexual conduct.”

According to McCaffery, “this would cover every bookstore, movie theater and video store in the state. It doesn't say the bookstore must contain a preponderance of adult material; it just says 'any material that contains nudity.'

“Basically everyone is in violation of this overly broad law. I suspect a challenge would get the law struck down, but in the meantime, it can be used to harass say … Barnes & Noble,” he said.

However, Sen. Butler says the adult businesses brought the regulations on with their own conduct. He said: “When the rural areas outside Huntsville voted to abolish city policy jurisdiction in their areas, these adult clubs moved just outside the city limits and just proliferated in our rural communities.”

“What I object to is the offensive nature of their advertising and their irresponsibility. Young children shouldn't have to ask their parents 'what are lap dances' when they are driving down the road,” he said.

“These adult businesses have brought this on themselves by assaulting the sensibilities of our community. I respect First Amendment rights, which are the cornerstone of our society. However, if you can't holler 'fire' in a crowded theater, you shouldn't be able to stand on the side of the road and holler 'all-nude showgirls and lap dances,'” Butler said.