GLAA urges Brazil to defend video stores from DCRA attacks

GLAA urges Brazil to defend video stores from DCRA attacks

Friday, March 20, 1998

The Honorable Harold Brazil
Chair, Committee on Consumer & Regulatory Affairs
Council of the District of Columbia
441 4th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001

Dear Mr. Brazil:

I am writing to express the recommendations of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA) for the FY 1999 budget for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. I regret that we were unable to testify in person before your committee on March 12.

Specifically, we ask that the Council use its budgetary powers to rein in DCRA's unwarranted attacks on video stores that sell adult videos. We discussed this issue briefly in our February 10 testimony during your committee's oversight hearings on DCRA, and now we'd like to offer additional perspectives.

The issues at stake here are simple and stark:

DCRA is trying to shut down video stores that derive more than 15% of their revenues from the sale of adult videos. According to the February 4 issue of The Northwest Current, Gladys Hicks of DCRA "wrote that the 15% figure was derived from several sources, including a survey of mixed-use stores in the District. This survey revealed the stores carried either less than 19% or more than 28% of adult films. The average percentage in the first category 13% was used as a benchmark, Hicks wrote."

What is so glaringly missing from DCRA is any explanation of why this statistical distinction should make any legal difference much less why this statistical distinction should justify shutting down literally dozens of independently-owned private businesses.

Aside from one case in upper Northwest, none of the video stores targeted by DCRA has been the subject of controversy in their own neighborhoods. They don't generate excessive noise or trash, nor are they frequented by unruly mobs of customers. They do not constitute any sort of "attractive nuisance." Their premises and surroundings are not marred by drugs or crime. They do provide employment and much-needed tax revenues for District government coffers. So why should the Council sit back passively and let DCRA wreak havoc?

If our elected officials refuse to take a stand against this mindless crusade one with absolutely no constituency beyond the arrogant bureaucrats who instigated it when will they ever take a stand for principle? Let us hear no more babble from politicians who solemnly pledge to "reform" the District government if they don't have the courage to fix such a glaring abuse of governmental powers.

It is one of the great "urban myths" of our time about as credible as stories about alligators in the sewers that sexually oriented businesses cause urban decay. No objective proof has ever been offered for this contemporary fairy tale; it is merely asserted dogmatically, as though it were self-evident. The sooner the District government escapes from the clutches of this folly, the better.

DCRA's arbitrary behavior is not just an attack on video store owners and employees. It is also an attack on the customers of these establishments, many of whom are gay. If the video stores react to DCRA's threats by dumping their stocks of adult titles, then the freedom of consumers to purchase what they want will be seriously and needlessly curtailed. In a society built on the twin pillars of free speech and free enterprise, the burden of proof for restricting those freedoms rests on the advocates of those restrictions. DCRA has not even begun to meet that stringent test.

DCRA is setting itself up as the moral arbiter of the District of Columbia and the keeper of the morals of our citizens. But only zoos and institutions need keepers. It is an insult to the free citizens of the District for our own government to act as our lord and master. Government is supposed to be the servant of free citizens.

Because DCRA policy targets customers as well as the stores, GLAA cannot be satisfied with proposals that would grant a grace period of 2 years or whatever for existing stores to adjust their sales and inventories so that they meet the 15% cutoff point. Nor can we be content with proposals that would exempt existing video stores from meeting the 15% point through a grandfather clause but would still require new stores to follow the DCRA rules. Such "compromises" might serve the selfish, short-term interests of some of the current owners but would still leave customers in the lurch. Since businesses come and go, eventually the availability of adult videos in the District would be seriously curtailed. We saw this happen with arbitrary legislative restrictions against new bars that wanted to offer nude dancing, and we are not about to let this mistake be casually repeated.

Let us be clear and unambiguous: GLAA takes the position that there should be no limitations or restrictions on the allowable percentage of adult videos sold at any establishment. Let the customers decide not the bureaucrats.

DCRA remains a notoriously dysfunctional agency. It continues to neglect its basic responsibilities to protect the public health and safety, in large part because it does not have enough inspectors and other staff to make even the legislatively-mandated minimum number of inspections each year. In light of these severe restrictions on budgetary and staff resources, it is all the more imperative for DCRA to set its priorities in order. There is no room for embarking upon a foolish crusade against the District's adult video stores and their customers. But inasmuch as DCRA has refused to establish a proper set of priorities, the Council must now do it for them.

Accordingly, we strongly urge that an amendment be added to the FY 1999 DCRA budget prohibiting the expenditures of any funds to enforce its new restrictions against video stores offering adult videos. Since such an amendment would only be effective for one fiscal year, and that not starting until October 1 of this year, we would also recommend that this amendment be attached as part of any supplemental budget legislation for FY 1998, and that this amendment be re-enacted every fiscal year hereafter, at the very least until DCRA is able to conduct the required number of inspections each year to ensure public health and safety. Even better for the long term, we urge the enactment of permanent legislation to prohibit regulations that are more stringent for video stores offering adult videos than for other kinds of retail establishments.

We realize that such measures would have to be approved by the Financial Control Board and by Congress. Even if one or the other of these bodies vetoes these provisions, we feel our own democratically elected representatives should clearly put themselves on the record in favor of free speech, free enterprise, and free citizens.

Sincerely,

Richard J. Rosendall
President
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington

cc: The Honorable Jack Evans
The Honorable Sandy Allen
The Honorable Frank Smith, Jr.
The Honorable David Catania
W. David Watts, Director, DCRA
Washington City Paper
The Washington Blade
The Northwest Current
The InTowner

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