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A First Amendment Battle Worth Fighting

By John Fox · July 9th, 2008 · Editorial

On July 8 CityBeat filed a federal lawsuit against government officials in the city of Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Campbell and Kenton counties in Northern Kentucky and Dearborn County in Indiana. We charged them and a coalition of local religious and nonprofit leaders led by Citizens for Community Values (CCV) of violating our First Amendment rights, conspiracy to violate our First Amendment rights and tortious interference with our business relationships.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

As many of you know, the people we�re suing held a news conference at Cincinnati City Hall June 9 to announce they wanted CityBeat to stop running adult services advertisements in our paper and on our Web site. This group also delivered a letter to �appeal to your integrity as a corporate citizen� and �eliminate the adult services category and refuse to accept ads elsewhere for sexual services.�

After ending the letter �Sincerely,� a total of 39 individuals signed it, from Phil Burress, President of Citizens for Community Values, and Bishop E. Lynn Brown, Presiding Bishop, 2nd Episcopal District, CME Church, to Paula Westwood, Executive Director, Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, and Pastor Charlie Winburn, The Church in College Hill.

Among the 39 signees were several people identified in their official capacities as local government leaders and, except for one case, as law enforcement officials: Kenton County Attorney Garry Edmondson, Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis, Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Monzel, Dearborn County Attorney Aaron Negangard, Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas H. Streicher Jr. and Campbell County Attorney Justin Verst.

The letter referenced recent prostitution arrests and raids in the Tristate by the Organized Crime Division of the Hamilton County Sheriff�s Department, the Vice Control Section of the Cincinnati Police Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and the U.S. Attorney�s Office in Indianapolis and connected them to CityBeat�s adult ads.

In fact, the letter claims, CityBeat and citybeat.com �have become primary avenues through which the sex-for-sale industry in greater Cincinnati markets their destructive services.�

The message to us was loud and clear: Stop running all adult-oriented ads or the area�s top cops and prosecutors will come down hard on CityBeat.

In the weeks since the group�s news conference and letter, we�ve been on a rollercoaster of sorts here at CityBeat. At first we were surprised to have been targeted yet again by CCV, who hadn�t picked on us in a while.

Over the 14 years we�ve been in business we�ve had a number of run-ins with CCV, whose leaders have bragged about getting us kicked out of distribution spots for whatever evil-of-the-month they blamed on us. We initially chalked up this prostitution publicity stunt to CCV�s desperate search for a relevant issue in a presidential election year.

But it quickly became apparent that something else was afoot. The CCV Web site posted an item June 9 about the news conference and letter under the headline �CityBeat newspaper accused of accepting prostitution ads.�

Taken together with law enforcement officials signing a letter that referenced local and federal police agencies and various criminal activity, this �accusation� suddenly turned from a stunt to a threat. As in the top law enforcement officials in five local jurisdictions conspiring to hurt us and maybe even put us out of business.

The adult-oriented ads we run in the paper can be found in the Yellow Pages � which are in every house, apartment and business in Greater Cincinnati � as well as in other local media outlets. The kind of ads found in our online adult section are on Craigslist.com and hundreds of other Web sites.

CityBeat, as you know, sits in racks and street boxes until you walk over and pick one up. Our adult-oriented Web ads can be accessed only after you click through a screen that requires you to verify that you�re at least 18 and agree to the site�s terms of use.

It�s thus preposterous to claim that CityBeat is solely responsible for the problem of prostitution in the Tristate, just as it�s preposterous to demand that we ban legitimate businesses and individuals from advertising their goods and services in CityBeat because a few bad apples have been arrested.

CityBeat�s adult services ads are legal ads for legal activities, the same kind of advertisements you�ll find in many other places. No one blamed newspapers, Web sites and TV/radio stations for advertising mortgage services when a bunch of high-profile mortgage companies were recently busted. No one threatened the media for running ads for Erpenbeck homes or Enzyte �enhancement� pills when those local companies were charged with crimes.

What�s next? Will local law enforcement demand CityBeat ban all bar and club advertising because some people get arrested for DUIs after visiting bars?

We can�t be forced to pass moral judgment on everyone � adult services or not � who wants to advertise. No media organization can operate that way.

We treat our advertisers (and our readers) with respect, not as criminals.

On June 20 CityBeat staff rallied on Fountain Square to deliver a public rebuke to the CCV coalition�s demands and to stand up for our integrity as corporate citizens (see my editorial �Free to Be True Americans�). We listed the kinds of issues we support � tolerance, diversity, creativity, gay pride, city living, public transit, performing and visual arts, local music, environmental responsibility and holding public officials accountable � that have helped nudge Cincinnati into the 21st century.

Most importantly, we reminded people on the Square that CityBeat believes in and values freedom of speech and freedom of the press. And, at its heart, that�s what this lawsuit is all about.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says government can�t abridge the freedom of speech or of the press, among other prohibitions. That�s the key relationship: government and the press.

If CCV or any of the local ministers or heads of nonprofit organizations who signed the letter want to tell people not to read CityBeat or demand that we stop running certain ads, they have every right to express their opinions. They�re private citizens exercising their own free speech rights.

But when government officials use their position of authority to threaten a media organization with implied legal action unless a certain demand is met, that�s wrong. And when CCV, ministers and nonprofit leaders conspire with government officials to threaten the media, they�re wrong, too.

As the lawsuit says, �These actions constitute a prior restraint on free expression that is presumptively invalid and additionally impose a chilling effect, forcing CityBeat to self-censor or face possible governmental action.�

There have been a lot of mornings during the past few weeks when I turned the corner from the parking lot to Race Street wondering if I�d see police cars parked in front of our building, officers carrying out computers and file cabinets. Too many mornings.

That kind of raid would create a real hardship for CityBeat. The business could be in trouble if we missed an issue or two while law enforcement officials seized our hard drives. How could we operate if uniformed officers visited our advertisers and distribution spots or followed our delivery drivers or if county prosecutors scooped up our papers as �evidence?�

This entire episode is about government officials coordinating an intimidation campaign with conservative advocacy groups to coerce a small media business into bending to their will. They oppose adult ads on moral grounds, and they seek to impose their brand of morality on CityBeat, our advertisers and our readers.

And so we�ve decided the only way to prevent permanent damage to our business is to ask a federal judge to intercede on our behalf and protect our right to exist.

Cincinnati is known far and wide for great accomplishments along with a few less-than-shining moments. Unfortunately we�ve gained a reputation as a community that allows moralizing bullies to intimidate businesses and individuals under the color of official government sanction in order to promote nebulous feel-good �community standards.�

I was always taught that the only reason bullies do what they do is because they think they can get away with it. Not this time.

CONTACT JOHN FOX: jfox@citybeat.com



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