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X Loses the Spot

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They are cheaper than some candy bars and as easy to buy--just chuck your pocket change into a sidewalk news rack for what could best be described as poor man’s porn.

With names like L.A. Xpress and Club Sun, these newspapers are the shoppers of X-rated publishing--brimming with photographs of nude or barely clad women in sexual poses alongside advertisements for sex-chat phone lines, escort services and some very, ahem, specific personals. Even the occasional news story.

But these publications, dispensed from street-corner news boxes all over Southern California, must clean up their act or get off the sidewalk.

Cities are drawing up guidelines while waiting to see how the distributors of the sex-oriented newspapers and magazines will comply with a state law that bars their display at unattended news racks. The 1994 law was held up by court action until this week.

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“It is a very strict law and we’re going to all be expected to enforce it,’ said Lisa Peskay Malmsten, a Long Beach deputy city attorney who was preparing a memorandum on how the law will affect the city. “This is new for all of us, so we’ll be sorting it out.”

The U.S. Supreme Court last week allowed the law to take effect after denying a final appeal filed by two Hollywood magazine distributors who attacked the law on free-speech grounds.

The move means that local communities will be responsible for policing news racks that long have come under fire from critics who said they allow minors to purchase sex-themed material. Some cities have previously sought to regulate the news racks, such as requiring that adult materials contained in the boxes be shielded from public view.

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While officials in some cities were beginning to consider how they would enforce the law, others predicted that the distributors would comply by cleaning up the publications or finding other sales methods.

“It’s more likely that they’ll change the nature of their publications,” said Byron Boeckman, an assistant city attorney in Los Angeles who advises the Police Commission. “There’s always a market for even the toned-down publications.”

Attorney Stanley Fleishman, who represented six adult newspapers in the case turned away by the Supreme Court, said he is advising his clients to “tone down” their material to make it legal. That will mean removing displays of certain nudity and simulated sex acts, he said.

“You’ll have something like when sports magazines have their swimsuit issues,” Fleishman said.

Publishers reeling from the court action were keeping a low profile.

“I’m sorry, I don’t want to be a story,” said Bryan Crawford, a plaintiff in the recent case.

At L.A. Xpress, which describes itself as the city’s largest adult weekly, a staffer said the newspaper planned to “tone down the paper” to meet the ban on sales of “harmful material” in unattended news racks. “No bad words. Not much nudity. . . . The cover will be clean. It will just be faces,” said the employee, who declined to be named. Attempts to reach the publisher were unsuccessful.

Some have suggested that distributors might move to a system in which the news racks are activated by tokens that would be sold elsewhere, under adult supervision. But the publishers may find that system too complicated, said one lawyer for the adult entertainment industry.

Some cities aren’t waiting to see how publishers react.

Whittier City Atty. Richard Jones, who also provides legal advice to La Habra, Westminster and Fullerton, said he will advise the cities to draw up ordinances specifying what kinds of publications must be sold only in stores and with a legal adult making the sale.

Compliance with the law will be judged on a “publication by publication” basis, said Mark Sellers, city attorney in Thousand Oaks, which recently required the use of blinders on news racks containing “material which is harmful to minors.”

The sidewalk news racks have irritated neighbors, and prompted concerns that children can simply walk up and buy sex-oriented material. Photographs sometimes depict full nudity, and advertisements are often labeled with profanity-laced descriptions of sex acts.

The number of news racks selling adult newspapers has dwindled to a few in La Canada-Flintridge after a three-year campaign by city officials to limit their number and require darkened windows on sidewalk boxes.

Although those actions have had some effect, the best weapon is residents’ distaste for the sex-oriented publications, said La Canada-Flintridge City Manager Gabriella Pryor.

But the newspapers remain popular elsewhere.

Sandra Diab, who manages a Winchell’s Donut House along a tony stretch of Lake Avenue in Pasadena, said teenagers flock to two nearby news racks that dispense sex-themed publications alongside boxes for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Many mornings, Diab said, the sidewalk tables are littered with the sex magazines.

“I would like them to take them away,” she said. “That’s pornography. Anyone can buy one.”

The sentiment was similar on a block of Ventura Boulevard with four such news racks. Jennifer Gordon, holding her infant daughter during a stroll, said the magazines were too easily within the reach of minors.

“I mean look, it’s right out here on the sidewalk--you don’t see cigarette machines or alcohol dispensers on the corner,” Gordon said. “Things like that should be hard to get.”

But the news racks may not disappear any time soon.

“It’s going to take a long time to shake this down,” said Jeffrey J. Douglas, an attorney who represents the adult entertainment industry. “The tragedy is that a number of the papers will not last long enough to figure this out.”

He said adult newspapers depend heavily on news-rack sales and few would want to risk the expense of testing the law in court. “No one wants the heat,” Douglas said.

Not everyone in the adult entertainment trade was unhappy to hear the state law is set to take effect. Closing news racks could push the magazines indoors--and to a higher price.

“It’s going to be good for business,” said Fernando Alejandres, manager of Le Sex Shoppe on Hollywood Boulevard. Publications such as the Sun, which sell for as little as 25 cents on the street, fetch up to $2 at the sex shop.

“All the customers are going to come and buy it,” Alejandres said.

Times staff writers Duke Helfand and Solomon Moore contributed to this report.


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