A Town's Moral Uprising

Cable Porn

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This southern California town of 45,000 is putting itself on the map as a model of how to "just say no" to activities it feels will erode family and moral values.

In quick succession, folks here nixed plans for a gambling casino, then a pool hall. They said "no" to a legal challenge of their right to display Christmas Nativity scenes in public spaces. They fought off an effort to make them remove a statue - depicting a figure with hands in prayer - in the City Hall courtyard.

Now, in a first-ever challenge to one of the nation's largest cable firms, Azusa, Calif., is rejecting sexually explicit, pay-per-view channels. Last month, the City Council approved a resolution demanding that X-rated offerings - channels known as "Spice" and "Adam and Eve" - be omitted from the local programming package.

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The action presents Charter Communications, headquartered in St. Louis, with a legal and moral conundrum that could affect its customers in 550 other cities in 19 states.

"We oppose such things as graffiti, loose shopping carts, and similarly should oppose the inclusion of smut in a function - cable TV - that is carried out under a contract with ... this city," says Councilman Dick Stanford. The resolution is not legally binding, but it does lay out the view that adult programming "would detract from Azusa's place as one of families and churches, and from its vision as the gem of the San Gabriel Valley."

There are those who feel the resolution smacks of paternalism and moral superiority, say journalists at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, which has been tracking the story. But they haven't come forward.

"It's not surprising that people are afraid to stand up in front of their neighbors to say, 'Yes, I favor pornography and smut,' " says Steve Scaucillo, editor of the editorial page. "But we have not had a single person even write in to contest this resolution. We are surprised at that."

Interestingly, the revolt is not coming from a homogeneous, upper-class suburb, but rather from a racially mixed town with a sizable contingent of factory workers. Azusa is majority Latino, about 35 percent white, with a smattering of African-American and Asian residents. It's also home to Azusa Pacific University, a nondenominational Christian college whose 11,000 students flood the town during the school year.

It's also a community in the midst of a physical and philosophical makeover. For 10 years now, city officials and residents have labored to raze or remodel decrepit buildings, remove the homeless from the streets, eradicate graffiti, and chase gang activity from its borders.

Raising standards

To many, the resolution to black out pornography on the tube is a natural extension of this cleanup effort.

"We are trying to raise the standards of the citizens of Azusa, we are trying to improve the image of the city," says Joannie Thompson, a local homemaker. "Allowing Charter Communications to bring this kind of programming ... is not holding with those standards...."

Officials at Charter Communications have said that none of their other client cities has ever challenged them about adult-themed channels. According to industry publications, subscribers to adult channels across the nation paid more than $100 million in cable fees. Playboy Enterprises Inc., which produces Playboy TV, Spice, and Adam and Eve, say the three channels reach about 36 million households. Charter officials say, and legal observers concur, that Azusa's resolution has no legal authority to control the cable company's content, which is protected as free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Still, Charter is striking a conciliatory note. "We are obviously dealing with a difficult matter," says Tom Schaeffer, senior vice president for operations for Charter's Western region. "We respect the council and the city and understand what they are trying to do, but we would rather work with them to find common ground," he says, noting the firm would face legal complications if it simply granted Azusa's wish.

The case has no simple solution because of the legal precedents it might set.

"Charter Communications' concerns are well placed in this matter," says Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles. "If they conceded some or all of their constitutional right to broadcast this material, they run the risk of creating legal confusion for other markets." He says the firm would also be at risk for lawsuits from producers claiming illegal restraint of trade.

Idea for compromise

Mr. Pugsley counsels Azusa and Charter to come to a compromise in which residents are instructed how to block adult channels and parental responsibility is underlined.

But residents say racy ads for adult TV appear on other cable channels, and that technically advanced teens can find ways around the safeguards.

For now, the matter is unsettled. Charter is weighing its options and considering a survey of town residents. It notes that people who want the X-rated shows would lose their right to such material if such access were denied. The firm also feels unfairly singled out, noting Azusa allows the purchase of satellite dishes that retrieve adult programming, and does not prohibit the sale and rental of X-rated videos.

Meanwhile, city residents are so far enjoying the other channels without adult programming. But beyond the issue of TV porn, residents say they hope their decision to stand up for what they believe will set an example for others.

"We just want to send a signal to youths here and across the nation that we have to start limiting the junk that comes into our houses and spoils the atmosphere of growth," says Hank Bode, vice president of legal affairs at Azusa Pacific University.

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