October 20, 2021

Town takes stand on obscenity

BELFAST — The City Council has taken the first step toward putting the wraps on nude dancing and other public activity of a sexual nature.

With little debate and the overwhelming support of the majority of those attending Tuesday night’s meeting, the councilors unanimously approved a pair of ordinances dealing with obscenity and public indecency. Both ordinances will require a second vote later this month before becoming law.

City Attorney William Kelly informed the council that the ordinances were based on public laws that had withstood U.S. Supreme Court challenges. He said the indecency ordinance requires nude dancers to cover their genitals, and in the case of women, nipples, with an opaque material. It also prohibits the simulation of sexual acts in a stage, or show-type setting.

“Pasties and G-strings can be regulated by local governments,” Kelly said. “The long and short of it is there are times when government interests exceed whatever rights are out there.”

Kelly said the obscenity ordinance required a “higher standard” of enforcement. He said obscene behavior needed to be “patently offensive” to violate the ordinance and that people should not be worried that the ordinance would prohibit the sale of so-called “girlie” magazines. Kelly noted that the obscenity law was based on one passed in Portland in the 1980s and that people concerned about its effects on art had nothing to worry about. “Portland has a pretty active artistic community,” he said.

The ordinances grew from concerns that striptease performances at two local bars — Bruno’s and Rico’s, and Jed’s — were giving the community a bad name. The owners of both establishments already have said they would abide by the council’s wishes. Representatives of local churches attended the meeting and also spoke in favor of having obscenity and indecency laws on the books.

Local businessman Larry Gleeson questioned whether the council was moving exceedingly fast on the issue. Gleeson noted that nude dance shows have been common in Belfast for years and that the city’s history was rich and varied. He suggested that a “single show” was being used as “an opportunity to galvanize public opinion” against an activity that “goes on behind closed doors. … For 200 years we’ve had a waterfront community with no need for an ordinance.” When weighed against what used to go on in Belfast, Gleeson said, “these places are so damn tame in comparison.”

Councilor James Lovejoy observed that the city’s “rough and tough and tumble … hard-working, hard-fighting, hard-drinking” past was long gone. Lovejoy noted that 20 years ago, slurs against a person’s race, sex or physical handicap were common. “We’re a step beyond that period; we’ve learned to have more sensitivity to people’s rights,” he said.

“We want people to appreciate and see the value of every human being,” Lovejoy continued. “We hope to keep the good order of this community. If this violates rights and privileges, then so be it. To not enact is to sit on our hands and hope it goes away.”

Councilor Bruce MacLaren said he polled his constituents during the past few weeks and found them 5-to-1 in favor of the ordinances. He said the laws represented the “fundamental urge of our society to protect itself” from “deviant” behavior. He emphasized that “the right of the individual to do as he pleases is not absolute.”

MacLaren said the ordinances “may not change attitudes or behaviors but it will slow the creeping degeneracy” and remove the opportunity to “compromise with any subculture that advocates immoral actions.”

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