Not so long ago, a family driving across Kansas on well-traveled I-70 would encounter nothing racier than a pecan log and nothing more hyped than the "world's largest prairie dog." Then porn came to the highway. The surprising thing is that officials in the Bible Belt state are taking the invasion lying down.
Let's start with the porn shop. Lion's Den is an Ohio-based chain of adult toy stores often found at tired freeway interchanges in empty parts of the country. In 2003, one of them arrived in the fabled cowboy town of Abilene. A pornucopia of videos, sheer little costumes and things that go hmmm moved into the peaked-roof carcass of an old Stuckey's, not far from a Russell Stover candy factory. People of a certain age recall when Stuckey's was known for sweet divinity and gooey taffy, back when such phrases weren't even vaguely smutty. But that was the old days. A big yellow sign went up, screaming, "ADULT Superstore." Lion's Den and its giant billboard have been in local crosshairs ever since.
An executive at Lion's Den's Columbus headquarters, who declined to be named, says the chain has 38 stores and has found rural highway outposts to be a good business location. "It's the high traffic. And the customer likes the anonymity they're not going to run into their neighbor," the executive says.
But Abilene terminus of the great longhorn cattle drives, boyhood home of Dwight D. Eisenhower fought back. Some folks anyway. Citizens launched Operation Daniel, named for the biblical prophet who was thrown into a lion's den but somehow tamed the beasts. As lonely truckers pulled into the parking lot, protesters met them waving signs that threatened, "Think Again or We Report." They vowed to send the tag numbers of porn-purchasing drivers to corporate employers. Wal-Mart soon put out the word to its drivers to steer clear.
"The home of Ike Eisenhower was fighting back," Phillip Cosby, a retired Army master sergeant who led the Kansas antiporn brigade, recalls proudly. Then in 2006, the state legislature enacted a law to limit the size of billboards to 40 sq. ft. Only an establishment's name, location, phone number and operating hours could be on the sign. Stores had until July 1 of this year to comply. But days before the deadline, a federal judge in Topeka blocked the law from taking effect until she could consider a challenge brought by Lion's Den. The store said the law placed improper restraints on commercial free speech.
Then, on Aug. 11, Kansas Attorney General Steve Six said he wasn't going to bother fighting for the law, since courts had already struck down similar laws in Georgia, South Carolina and neighboring Missouri (where similar billboards dot a stretch of I-70 near Boonville). Kansas' law was in fact identical to Missouri's, Six noted, and the Missouri law was held unconstitutional by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "Given the state's budget challenges, it would be fiscally irresponsible to continue litigation that has very little chance of success," Six said, adding that his decision would prevent Kansans from being "on the hook" to pay the fees of Lion's Den's lawyers. Under Kansas' agreement with Lion's Den, the state will not enforce the law, and in exchange the store can't recoup its legal costs from the Kansas treasury.
The law's backers complain that Six caved too easily and didn't provide evidence about pornography's "secondary negative effects" such as lower property values, increased drug trafficking and general blight. "The porn industry has deep, deep, deep pockets," says state senator Tim Huelskamp, who believes there is a link between pornography and fantasy-driven criminal behavior. "Justice shouldn't have a price. What is the cost of one additional rape of a child, the cost of another young woman being a victim? Kansas families deserve an opportunity to drive freely down the highway without this kind of advertising."
J. Michael Murray, a Cleveland lawyer for Lion's Den, says it was "preposterous" to think Six could have defended "a statute doomed to failure." The case could have easily cost Kansas $150,000 or more to pursue, Murray says. Six's office notes that former Kansas attorney general Phil Kline once spent more than $1 million in state tax dollars defending a legal opinion on requiring health-care providers to report teenage sex; he lost the case.
Operation Daniel's Cosby says adult chains threaten small towns with bankruptcy if they put up a fight. Now the state's "top cop" has bailed too, he says. "The attorney general flinched at the roar of the Lion's Den," he says. Cosby, who also heads the Kansas City office of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, predicts that limits on sex-shop advertising could be won in the future with the right argument. He says there are constitutional zoning restrictions for sexually oriented businesses, and liquor and tobacco face advertising limits. Under this scenario, adult sex store billboards would go the way of the Marlboro Man. Says Cosby: "Someday, some attorney is going to get it."