Can Mo. strip sex from signs?

Legislators try again after a court throws out their first law.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:29 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Denied once in court, Missouri lawmakers are making another attempt to restrict signs and billboards advertising sexually oriented businesses.

The Senate gave initial approval Tuesday to legislation that would prohibit such businesses from using any sexually oriented pictures or words on any signs and billboards near state highways.

The bill is an attempt to revive a law struck down in August by a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the association for adult entertainment businesses claimed Tuesday that the latest legislation still violates First Amendment free-speech rights and, if passed, again would be challenged in court.

The original legislation, passed in 2004, barred most billboards for strip clubs and other adult-oriented businesses. Those businesses located within one mile of state highways could have just two signs — one showing the business’ name and operating hours, the other noting it is off-limits to minors.

The federal appeals court said the state had a legitimate interest in trying to restrict sexually oriented businesses, but went too far with its law.

For example, the law barred businesses that sell both sexual and nonsexual merchandise from advertising even other items on billboards.

“Should an affected business owner choose to post a sign with the price of gasoline, or a sign advertising a nationally known soft drink on the exterior of the business, he or she would be subject to criminal prosecution,” the appeals court said in its August ruling.

Sen. Matt Bartle, the author of the 2004 law, said his latest attempt is intended to address those concerns.

“We’re trying to narrowly tailor it to the adult content itself, so if they sell gasoline or bubble gum or anything else, that kind of advertising won’t be restricted,” said Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit.

But the legislation still limits sexually oriented businesses within a mile of state highways to having no more than two signs that are no more than 40 square feet each. It also keeps in place the misdemeanor penalty, punishable by up to 15 days in jail and a $300 fine.

“The First Amendment violations still exist,” said Ann Michael, executive director of the Missouri Association of Club Executives, the trade group for sexually oriented businesses.

Democratic Sens. Chuck Graham, of Columbia, and Jolie Justus, of Kansas City, also said Bartle’s new language appeared likely to get challenged in court — and thus likely to cost the state money.

The senators provided records from the attorney general’s office showing two legal firms representing sexually oriented businesses were paid a total of about $120,000 by the state on Feb. 14 as reimbursement for their winning court cases. Graham said one of those attorneys used the money to buy a car and sailboat.

“I’m going to call it right now,” Graham said during debate Tuesday, “if this is the language that goes into the statutes, it will be challenged, it will be tossed out by the courts and their lawyer will get another car and sailboat on the taxpayers’ tab.”

Senators gave the bill first-round approval by voice vote. It requires another Senate vote to move to the House.

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