Lawmakers Continue Quest to Ban Adult Billboards

Michael Hayes
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After a similar bill was struck down by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the state Senate has given its initial approval to legislation that would restrict signs and billboards advertising sexually oriented businesses along Missouri highways.

The original legislation, which passed in 2004, banned most billboards and signs for strip clubs and adult bookstores in the state. Under the law, businesses located within one mile of a state highway were allowed two signs — one advertising the name of the establishment and its hours of operation, the other noting that minors were not allowed on the premises.

While the appellate court agreed that the state had a legitimate interest in restricting sexually explicit ads along Missouri’s highways, the judges ruled that law was overly broad because it barred businesses that sell adult and nonsexual products from advertising.

“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 overturning the law. “[The state] failed to make a showing that more limited speech regulation would not have adequately served the state’s interest.”

Sen. Matt Bartle, the author of the original legislation, said the new bill addresses the concerns raised by the court.

“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,” Bartle said.

Ann Michael, the executive director of the Missouri Association of Club Executives — a trade group for local adult businesses — said the new bill still does violence to the 1st Amendment because it restricts club owners to two billboards. The new bill also keeps in place the criminal penalty for noncompliance — 15 days in jail and a $300 fine.

Sens. Chuck Graham and Jolie Justus agreed with Michael that the new bill is still flawed and that it would likely trigger a court challenge.

“I’m going to call it right now,” Graham said during debate over the legislation, “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.”

Graham and Justus provided their colleagues with records from the Missouri attorney general office showing legal bills of $120,000 paid to two law firms who unsuccessfully defended the 2004 bill on behalf of the state.

Bartle’s current bill received approval by voice vote. The Senate is expected to send the bill to the House soon with a second, binding vote.

In the meantime, Rep. David Pearce has a similar bill pending before the House.

Pearce said his bill would help create a more favorable impression of the state.

“If we ignore this problem, it will only get worse, so we need to do something about it,” he said. “These measures are designed to reduce the negative effects these billboards and businesses have on our society.”