Disputed Anti-Porn Measure Faces Council Test
A proposed anti-pornography law, patterned after legislation that has run into legal barriers in other cities, has made its way to the Los Angeles City Council, where its sponsors hope today to persuade skeptics that it is not more trouble than it is worth.
Backers of the ordinance are predicting a close vote in the council. The proposal, aimed at material that is both explicitly sexual and violent, is almost identical to one tentatively enacted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors earlier this year.
Originally conceived as a means of allowing women to seek legal retribution against pornographers on the grounds that pornography discriminates against women, the proposed ordinance took on a different form after a federal judge in Indianapolis ruled the original concept unacceptable.
The proposal facing the council here would allow anyone, under certain conditions, to sue manufacturers, distributors and exhibitors of films or pictures “of sexual abuse and debasement of human beings which encourage, incite or instruct in acts of sexual violence or debasement. . . .”
Under the proposed law, which carries no criminal penalties, people would be entitled to sue if:
- They were forced or tricked into taking part in the making of objectionable material.
- They were coerced into looking at such material.
- They were assaulted by someone who was incited to violence by the material.
Councilman Ernani Bernardi became the primary sponsor of the ordinance after holding a series of public hearings last fall that examined purported links between certain kinds of explicit material, mainly films, and acts of violence.
The ordinance appears to have the support of several council members, but it has aroused some opposition, notably from Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who argues that the proposed law is misguided for at least two reasons.
“First of all, I am not satisfied that there is evidence that this material has incited acts of violence,” Yaroslavsky said. “Second, I have problems with the wording. What is abusive? What is debasing? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
“Under this law, is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ abusive?” he asked in reference to Shakespeare’s rough- and-tumble comedy about a husband’s efforts at disciplining his new wife. “You can’t predict what a jury might decide.”
Defenders of the proposed law say that it includes a provision that would protect works of art, such as a Shakespeare play. They also argue that vagueness, which helped prove the undoing of similar proposals in Indianapolis and Minneapolis, is not a big problem with the Los Angeles ordinance.
For example, they point out that the Los Angeles proposal avoids the term “pornography,” which is subject to varying interpretations, in describing what is grounds for a lawsuit.
On the other hand, one backer of the ordinance conceded that some of the wording might not be easily defined.
Asked what the ordinance means by the term “sexual debasement,” Dennis Johnson, the Bernardi aide in charge of researching the ordinance, replied: “I can’t tell you myself. I could only hazard a guess.”
Despite the refinements, critics of the proposed law warn that it would do more harm than good.
Carol Sobel, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, said it is likely to prompt a rash of lawsuits that have little chance of success but that could become a financial drain on many theaters and film distributors.