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Billboard Furor Over 'Adult' Convenience Store

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Steele, Mo., convenience store that sells sexual merchandise as well as gasoline and cigarettes is the latest business to challenge Missouri's law prohibiting sexually oriented billboards within a mile of state highways.

The Kansas City Star reports that Steele Retail 37 LLC, doing business as Lion's Den, says it opened for business a week and a half ago, but fears it will be prosecuted if it puts up display signs because more than 10 percent of its display space consists of sexually oriented materials.

The billboard law applies to strip clubs and businesses that devote more than 10 percent of their display space to sexually oriented merchandise. Business owners who violate the law can be punished by up to 30 days in jail.

Steele Retail 37 says it wants to put up signs saying “Lion's Den Superstore, Fuel, Food, Adult, Exit Now” and “The Lion's Den, Fuel, Food, Adult,” as well as signs that advertise the price of gas, ice, cigarettes and beverages. But the business, which describes itself as a gas station and convenience store, says it fears any billboard it puts up will be deemed a violation of the law because it also sells adult videos, DVDs, magazines and other wares.

The law “prohibits any commercial speech, whether it's the price of gas or the price of beer, cigarettes, Coca-Cola or anything else. It does not allow one basically to advertise anything,” attorney Jonathan D. Marks, who represents Steele Retail 37, told the Star.

Steele Retail 37's complaint, filed Wednesday in federal court in Kansas City, is the third challenge to the billboard law, which went into effect last Aug. 28. The law was sponsored by Missouri Sen. Matt Bartle, a Lee's Summit Republican.

In a response Thursday, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon said the law is a “content-neutral regulation aimed at combating the adverse secondary effects of adult cabarets and sexually oriented businesses.” Nixon said the state has a legitimate interest in regulating the advertising of adult businesses on or near state highways.

Steele Retail 37 is off Missouri 164 in Steele, a small town in Pemiscot County in Missouri's Bootheel. Lion's Den, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, operates what it describes as “adult superstores,” mainly in rural areas in the Midwest near highway off-ramps. It operates two other outlets in Missouri, in Waynesville off Interstate 44 and in Nelson off Interstate 70.

Many of its stores have stirred up controversy, most recently one near Abilene, Kan., which opened in September 2003 in a renovated Stuckey's restaurant. In April, the Dickinson County prosecutor filed a complaint against the store accusing it of illegally promoting obscenity.

Steele Retail 37's challenge of the billboard law comes just eight days after U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner rejected a challenge brought by Gala Entertainment of KC Inc., a Kansas City strip club, and Passions Video Inc., a Boonville, Mo.-based video and magazine chain. Like Steele Retail 37, Gala and Passions argued that the law unconstitutionally abridged their free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

Fenner ruled that the law is a permissible regulation of commercial speech and denied the plaintiffs' request for a permanent injunction. A lawyer for Gala and Passions said he planned to appeal the ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Marks said he was unfazed by Fenner's ruling because Steele Retail 37's case is different from the one filed by Gala and Passions.

“Those are strictly adult businesses,” he said. “The Lion's Den is not. It's not surrounded solely by the adult aspect of it. So from a factual basis, it is distinct.”

The billboard law is modeled after a similar statute in New Jersey that was upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Lawmakers said the legislation was aimed at combating the adverse secondary effects of sexually oriented businesses by improving traffic safety; limiting harm to minors; reducing crime, prostitution and juvenile delinquency; and curbing deterioration in property values.

Steele Retail 37 contends the statute covers not only strictly adult-oriented businesses but also mom-and-pop video stores and large commercial bookstores.

The law allows affected businesses within a mile of highways to display just two on-site billboards: one listing their name, address, phone number and business hours, and another warning that the stores are off-limits to minors.

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