Supreme Court Rejects Free-Speech Arguments, Supports Obscenity Crackdown
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court turned aside free-speech arguments Monday and boosted the federal government’s crackdown on obscenity.
The justices, over one dissenting vote, let stand the forced closing of three adult bookstores and nine video rental shops in Virginia under a federal anti-racketeering law.
The businesses’ owners, convicted of racketeering and selling obscene materials, had argued that the subsequent seizures of their properties violated their free-speech rights.
The seizures were carried out under provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Those convicted under that law may be forced to forfeit all assets and proceeds stemming from their illegal activity.
Justice Byron R. White voted to hear the business owners’ appeal, but four votes are needed to grant such review.
In other action Monday, the court:
-Rejected the appeal of a former Air Force sergeant convicted in Washington state of aggravated assault for engaging in homosexual conduct while knowingly infected with an AIDS-related virus.
-Set aside a Minnesota man’s federal conviction for burning an American flag during a 1988 demonstration in Minneapolis. The justices told a federal appeals court to reconsider the conviction in light of their decision last June that flag burning is protected political speech.
-Refused to let Texas, and by extension other states as well, ban deceptive advertising by airlines. The justices let stand an appeals court ruling that only the federal government may regulate airline ads.
-Unanimously ruled in a Georgia case that state officials need federal clearance, under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, before holding elections for state judgeships.
-Refused to revive a copyright lawsuit against the publisher of an unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology religion.
-Turned down the appeal of two Peotone, Ill., policemen who said they were disciplined unlawfully for wearing earrings while off duty.
In the obscenity and racketeering case, the Virginia bookstore and video rental shop owners are the first ever prosecuted on racketeering charges stemming entirely from obscenity crimes.
Obscenity was added in 1984 to the long list of underlying crimes on which a RICO prosecution could be based.
″The court’s determination of the validity of post-judgment forfeiture in this case will have enormous impact upon the future of RICO obscenity prosecutions, both state and federal,″ lawyers for the convicted business owners said.
Dennis and Barbara Pryba, owners of the corporations that operated the bookstores and video shops in northern Virginia, were convicted of selling and distributing obscene magazines and videotapes worth about $105.
An employee, Jennifer Williams, also was convicted on obscenity charges.
Dennis Pryba was sentenced to three years in prison and five years probation, and was fined $75,000. Barbara Pryba was given a suspended prison sentence and fined $200,000. Ms. Williams was given three years probation and fined $2,250.
One of the corporations the Prybas owned also was fined $200,000.
After a separate jury trial, a federal judge ordered that all assets - including corporate stock, inventory, bank accounts, automobiles and even office furniture - be forfeited.
The convictions and forfeiture order was upheld by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last April.
In their appeal, the Prybas and Williams said forfeiture of businesses engaged in constitutionally protected activities - the distribution of materials not found to be obscene - amounts to an impermissible ″prior restraint″ of speech.
The Bush administration urged the justices to reject the appeal.
″If bookstores, newsstands, publishing houses and the like were immune from forfeiture, drug lords and other racketeers could invest in those businesses and thereby insulate their criminal proceeds from seizure,″ government lawyers argued.