CINCINNATI - Citizens for Community Values (CCV) is one of the most active pro-censorship organizations in America, but its recent threats against a local newspaper may have landed the group and its supporters in legal trouble.
"CityBeat is Cincinnati's weekly arts, entertainment and news publication, akin to the Village Voice," explained Jennifer Kinsley, attorney for the plaintiff. "Their primary source of revenue is through advertisements, and they do carry classified ads in an adult section through which adults can meet and connect with each others, and I think they also carry a broader adult services category where there are ads for things like massages and what-not available."
CityBeat's problems began about two years ago, when Cincinnati started investigating a number of Asian massage parlors, which resulted in the arrest of several employees of the parlors for prostitution.
Since several of the parlors advertised in CityBeat (as well as in the local Yellow Pages, on billboards and in other venues), CCV saw the arrests as an opportunity to attempt to coerce CityBeat into removing all of its adult-oriented advertisements.
"We, the undersigned, represent a diverse coalition of non-profit organizations, law enforcement agencies and concerned individuals united by a common concern: the exploitation of women, the devastation of families, and the endangerment of greater Cincinnati's communities brought about by prostitution and other aspects of the sex-for-sale industry," began a letter, signed by over 40 clergymen, censorship supporters and others, which CCV announced at a press conference that it was sending to the owners of CityBeat. "The majority of ads in CityBeat's adult classified section clearly appear to be outright or thinly veiled advertisements for prostitution or other sexual services, many of which are in violation of state criminal laws... Together, we, the undersigned, therefore appeal to your integrity as a corporate citizen and ask that you eliminate the adult services category, and refuse to accept ads elsewhere for sexual services, in both your print and online editions."
Trouble was, it wasn't just ordinary citizens who signed the letter. Signatories included Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis, Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas H. Streicher, Jr., Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Monzel, Kenton County (Ky.) Attorney Garry Edmondson, Campbell County (Ky.) Attorney Justin Verst, and Dearborn County (Ind.) Attorney Aaron Negangard ... and of course, CCV president Phil Burress and Religious Alliance Against Pornography president Dr. Jerry Kirk.
"The letter was signed by the district attorneys of the three counties that border Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is situated," Kinsley observed, "as well as Hamilton County's sheriff, Cincinnati's police chief, and Chris Monzel, who's one of our young up-and-coming Republican superstars, and he is very conservative, socially conservative."
Moreover, Kinsley noted that the press conference announcing the letter was held in an office in Cincinnati City Hall.
"We have since learned that it is the city's policy that no private entity can make use of city property; it has to be arranged through a government office and it's to be for government purposes only," Kinsley explained. "It was the city councilman that signed onto the letter that arranged for the use of city property. So there's government action all over this thing."
And that's a problem.
"The letter that was sent to CityBeat was highly intimidating, saying 'Drop these adult services ads or else'," Kinsley charged. "The 'or else' wasn't specified, but I think the 'or else' is 'or face prosecution' when you have prosecutors and police officers, law enforcement officials signing onto it. And CityBeat was rightfully scared and intimidated when they received this letter, and very publicly said, 'No, we're not dropping our advertisements because they're for lawful services, and also we're going to sue you guys.' So we filed suit against all the signatories to the letter."
"Were this just done by CCV and if this were just some sort of private activity, we certainly, as free speech advocates, would champion their right to be able to express themselves in whatever way they want to," Kinsley continued. "But when they associate with government offices in an effort to intimidate and threaten criminal charges, that becomes a whole different issue. It's suppression of speech and it's intimidation and it's censorship."
Though its provenance is unclear, CCV has apparently claimed authorship of the letter, and it was that group that organized the signatories and planned the press conference - and thus has become the main defendant in CityBeat's lawsuit.
"Four separate motions to dismiss have been filed, all by non-government parties," Kinsley reported. "The private parties - all of the ministers and community people, the family advocates and the anti-abortion folks and lots of interest groups like that - those folks are all represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, which is based down south, so it took a little bit of time to get that all organized - and then the government folks all have their own counsel, and the CCV has their own counsel. CCV, I should mention, is footing the bill for the Alliance Defense Fund on behalf of all of the private folks."
The suit, filed just about one month ago, is still in its early stages, though depositions are planned for the near future.
Because the plaintiff has sought money damages as a result of a decline in advertising revenue following the public release of the letter, CCV's insurance company has filed to intervene in the suit, and though that company claims it has no duty to defend the suit, it has nonetheless asked the court to relieve them of any obligation to CCV in the case.
"I think we could see a very serious problem if we were to lose this case," said CCV's David Miller. "When any pastor, any person who wanted to raise a standard of righteousness and say, this is wrong, we shouldn't be doing such-and-such in our society - it might even roll over to the issue of abortion - there's no telling how far down the road this could go."
Also of interest - and possibly a future cause of legal difficulty for CCV - is the portion of its Website that appears to be a "voter guide" - except that it's misleadingly labeled "Sample Ballot," and while entries below the "Presidential Candidates" section contain the notation "Did not return survey," the "responses" of the presidential candidates do not, although all of those candidates' responses seem to have been culled from news reports and interviews. Both the advertisement of the voter guide as a "Sample Ballot," and the apparent attempt to mislead the public into thinking that both John McCain and Barack Obama actually filled out and returned surveys to CCV, may rise to the level of election fraud - if any Justice Department official sees fit to notice it.