Bartle’s porno billboard bill moves forward
By Allen Palmeri
April 27, 2004
JEFFERSON CITY – The House Transportation and Motor Vehicle Committee voted 18-1 April 21 to approve a Senate bill intended to reduce the number of billboards promoting sexually oriented businesses along Missouri’s highways.
Senate Bill 870 now advances to the entire House of Representatives. Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit and a deacon at First Baptist Church, Raytown, is working closely with the handler of the bill in the House, Rep. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, to build bipartisan support for a measure that has drawn national attention. The bill passed the Senate 33-1.
“I’m really struggling to find anybody who thinks this is a bad idea,” Bartle said. “It takes all of those garbage billboards, the porn shops and the sex toys, and it forbids it.”
Opponents argue that the bill is an unconstitutional infringement of First Amendment rights. Bartle said pornography shop owners are vehemently against the bill and will sue the state if it becomes law, but Pearce said bipartisan support is growing. Attorneys from the governor’s office are working with Pearce on language that can withstand a court challenge, and Pearce said Gov. Bob Holden is signaling that he will support the measure barring some unusual amendment.
Bartle sees the bill as an opportunity for Missouri to shine. A five-person crew from the CBS Morning News came to Jefferson City to interview the senator April 13 for a special segment on pornographic billboards popping up all across the land. The CBS news segment aired April 22. Bartle mentioned how Missouri’s billboard problem is shared by states like Florida and Kansas.
“This is an area where Missouri could become a leader,” Bartle said. “This is the first time I’ve had a bill (covered by) national media. We have solid case law in other states which suggests that we can do this constitutionally. This is commercial speech. The U.S. Supreme Court applies a more relaxed level of scrutiny.
“We have a gorgeous state. I was always taught as a little boy that I was lucky to grow up in the state of Missouri . My old granddaddy, who used to teach me that, would be absolutely sickened to see what the billboard industry has done to our landscape. It’s not going to change until we change it.”
Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia and the Senate minority floor leader, was able to insert a “bad flaw” into the bill, Bartle said, by winning support for an amendment that defined nudity as bare exposure of the skin between the armpits and knees. That could have broadened the opposition to the bill to include casinos and boat manufacturers, Bartle said, but a House committee substitute with narrower definitions of nudity and semi-nudity is expected to help Pearce in floor debate.
The bill would require that most billboards advertising adult cabarets or pornographic material be placed at least one mile from a highway. Bartle, an attorney, said county prosecutors are begging lawmakers for a tool that would help them go after these sex shops, which are seen as an intrusion in rural Missouri .
“Right now, it’s very basic as far as adult cabarets and adult-oriented businesses,” Pearce said. “To me, we have to have it very narrow. We’re focusing on the businesses. That’s our strategy.”
“We think we have a definition of nudity that really addresses the issue and gets rid of the concerns that people had,” Bartle said.
Kerry Messer, lobbyist for the Christian Life Commission of the Missouri Baptist Convention, is already anticipating the legal challenge. Messer said the bill, if it does become law, will hold up based on a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling stating that prohibiting or restricting commercial speech does not violate any guidelines of the First Amendment.
“The court has developed a four-part test to determine the validity of restraints,” Messer said. “Does it concern lawful activity and is not misleading? Is the asserted governmental interest substantial? Does the regulation directly advance the governmental interest asserted? Is the regulation more extensive than necessary to serve the governmental interest?
“Senate Bill 870 clearly passes those four parts.”
The case in court would boil down to how the law views those who attempt to send obscene material through the mail, Messer said. Children who look at the pornographic billboards along Interstate 70, for example, are “affronted time and time and time again with the pandering of adult materials,” Messer said. The state has every right to restrict such expression.
“Commercial speech is subject to proper time, place and manner of restrictions,” Messer said. “This legislation does not prohibit billboards. It submits the billboards to a proper time, place and manner of restrictions.
“It triggers a much lower level of judicial scrutiny, and it may be regulated in ways that would be impossible were it not commercial speech.”
In committee, Chairman Larry Crawford, R-Centertown and a member of Friendship Baptist Church, California, noted that courts have restricted cigarette advertising, for example.
The Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association is not opposed to the bill. While stopping short of supporting the measure, the association has testified that it does accept advertising for sexually oriented businesses.
Pearce pointed out that 20 Democrats and 21 Republicans signed on to the House counterpart of Bartle’s bill. He mentioned how helpful Rep. Trent Skaggs, D-North Kansas City and a deacon at First Baptist Church, North Kansas City, has been.
“To me, this is a bipartisan effort,” Pearce said.