Bill to ban racy billboards triggers debate

Thursday, February 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:48 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — State lawmakers are a step closer to taking sex off Missouri’s roadsides. A Senate ban on adult billboards cleared for final passage Wednesday.

Supporters say citizens are saddened by what has happened on Missouri’s roadways.

“We shouldn’t have a situation where we have to explain to our children what ‘XXX’ means or ‘adult toys’ mean,” Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, the bill’s sponsor, said. “It is disgusting.”

The proposal would prohibit billboards within one mile of any state highway from advertising a business whose workers appear nude or who use more than 10 percent of display space for pornography.

Adult businesses near highways would be allowed to have two outdoor signs: one with the business’ name, street address, telephone number and operating hours, and one prohibiting minors.

Existing signs would have to be removed within three years.

Gerald Ulrich, the owner of First Amendment Video in Boonville and mayor of Bunceton, said he has no intention of removing his sign.

“I don’t plan on changing my signs. They’re going to have to take me to court to get my sign down,” Ulrich said.

While Ulrich no longer owns billboards, his business’ neon sign would fall under the provisions of the bill.

Adult businesses would not be the only industries affected by the bill. An amendment by Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, defined nudity as “any bare exposure of the skin located on a person’s body below the armpits and above the knees.”

This provision would apply to swimsuits as well as pasties.

Bartle said the government could restrict commercial speech if there was a “substantial public interest.”

“The court has said legislatures can restrict commercial speech to protect children, and that’s exactly what we’re intending to do,” Bartle said.

Opponents said the ban would be unconstitutional.

“It’s an equal protection violation,” Kansas City attorney Dick Bryant said. “It is clearly prohibiting advertising by a group because of the message they communicate.”

Bryant testified against the bill in Senate committee hearings. He represents the First Amendment Lawyers Association and the Missouri Association of Club Executives, a not-for-profit organization that advocates the interests of adult entertainment businesses.

Ulrich agreed it would be discriminatory to single out the adult industry.

“If the state bans them, they should ban all of them. And that includes their own on the interstate,” Ulrich said.

One lawmaker proposed an amendment that would ban all new billboards.

“Our roads are littered with billboards,” said Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis County. “If we’re serious about this, we’ll do it for any business that has signs within a mile of the highway.”

The amendment was struck down with a voice vote by other lawmakers who said it would effectively “kill” the bill.

A similar House bill was also given preliminary approval Tuesday. The bill is expected to be met with litigation if passed.

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