FSC Summit Puts Industry Issues in Perspective

BEVERLY HILLS—Although the Free Speech Coalition Summit's seminar on Measure B drew the highest attendance, it wasn't the only issue dealt with by industry professionals during the all-day gathering, which culminated with the FSC Awards.

Of particular interest was the day's second panel, "Sex and Politics," which was moderated by FSC CEO Diane Duke, who asked questions of two lobbyists with some industry-related experience, D.C. area lobbyist Robert Rabin, and Sue Burnside of Burnside and Associates, an LA-based political consulting firm that handled the industry's campaign against Measure B—and the news was both good and bad.

"I see no large trend... at the federal level to change" government policies on porn, Rabin told the assemblage. He traced that opinion in part to President Obama's reelection as well as the generally few changes to either house of Congress, though Democrats did pick up a couple of seats in each; and though Tea Party representatives remain dominant forces in both houses, Rabin predicted little anti-porn sentiment among them, since according to Rabin, the Tea Party "is organized mostly around libertarian principles" which would dictate freedom of sexual expression. (This despite Tea Party leaders speakng favorably of and overwhelmingly supporting candidates who had promised to prosecute adult businesses and content.)

Moreover, Rabin noted that although Republicans still have a clear majority in the House of Representatives, they had formed no plans to deal with the stunning losses they suffered in most federal races, leading him to state that the Republican leadership is "ready to compromise."

Of course, those opinions are open to question, and even Rabin himself seemed unsure of his conclusion, since he noted that over the past few years, Republicans who believed in bipartisanship were not only not rewarded for being willing to compromise, but in fact have been punished for such cooperation. He cited the defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar as an example.

But although the Republican Party had adopted, as part of its platform, a plank reading, "Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced," a speaker on one of the panels noted that there are currently no federal obscenity prosecutions pending, and with the success of the John Stagliano/Evil Angel defense, not to mention Obama's reelection, there's a good chance there won't be any in the near future.

Burnside had even better news: Democrats now hold a "super-majority" in both the California Senate and Assembly, and that the electorate had passed three-quarters of the tax increases proposed by state and local governments across the state. Still, she noted that there was cause for caution, since Democrats have shown that they are uncomfortable dealing with the word "porn" and legislation directed at the industry, and she said that with no viable Republican opposition Democrats might easily reintroduce a "sin tax" on DVD sales in the state—a measure which has been introduced several times over the past 15 years, but failed each time, in part because Republicans had been adamant about not increasing taxes on anything, even porn.

Nonetheless, she pointed out that the industry will have to work with the Democratic power structure, and that it couldn't hurt to do some preliminary outreach to them quickly.

Amplifying that concept, Rabin noted that historically, the adult industry has adopted a defensive posture when it comes to legislation, though the offense against Measure B changed all that, and he recommended that industry leaders not take the measure's passage as a sign to retreat to defensive mode again, but should seek out legislators on both sides of the aisle and attempt to work with them to promote industry issues, even if we as a group oppose most if not all of their other stances. He suggested that positions like, "Hands off our guns and our porn" might be saleable to Republicans, though he warned that the two biggest factions within that party are the Chambers of Commerce and the conservative evangelicals, and he urged industry members not to disrespect their opponents' biblical morality.

The passage of Proposition 35 was also mentioned, with Burnside noting that "the ballot summary looked good" even if misleading, and she cautioned that under that law, producers and even agents might be held criminally liable for flying women in from out of state to perform in sexually explicit movies and webcasts. However, she noted that the ACLU and the Electronic Freedom Foundation have already begun litigation against some aspects of the new law, and that the adult industry might easily convince them to join a lawsuit against some of its more onerous provisions that would affect adult moviemaking.

Finally, she noted that AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) president Michael Weinstein stopped appearing personally to take part in the several debates over Measure B that were broadcast in the last days before the election, and she attributed that to the No on B campaign's accusations that AHF had overbilled the state for thousands of dollars in false expenditures, and that the organization had been playing fast and loose with its contributors' donations and even government grants. She advised continuing to investigate AHF's financial dealings.

Another panel of interest was titled "Hot Seat," and brought together three prominent industry attorneys to discuss legal issues that are likely to affect the adult community over the coming years.

J. Michael Murray, who has been the lead attorney on Free Speech Coalition's lawsuit in the Third Circuit against the federal recordkeeping and labeling law, 18 U.S.C. §2257, called election day "a great day for the adult industry" because it means that for the next four years, Obama will be the person nominating candidates to replace whichever U.S. Supreme Court Justices resign or die.

Murray also noted that this year is the tenth anniversary of the high court's decision in City of Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, a decision that has been much cited by attorneys defending adult book and video stores against city councils and zoning boards which have claimed, with no credible evidence, that the adult businesses cause increases in crime and decreases in the value of surrounding properties. Without naming them, he referred specifically to two cases in the Seventh Circuit, Annex Books and New Albany DVD, where the Court of Appeals found the state's rationales for trying to put the stores out of business to be specious and unsupportable. In fact, Murray noted that studies had shown that crime in the area actually went up after the stores were closed for the night!

Murray also advised that adult retailers "continue to be good corporate citizens," that they join civic organizations like their local Chambers of Commerce and that they support good community causes.

Veteran First Amendment advocate Paul Cambria's main topic was "How to avoid being prosecuted." He stated that most prosecutions he's aware of have revolved around what he termed "extreme content," and he said that producers of such material need to be very careful where they allow that material to be distributed. That said, however, he opined that whatever prosecutions occur over the next few years will likely be in "the usual places." He also noted that high-profile adult clubs (such as ones that have billboard advertisements along local roads and highways) tend to be prosecuted, as do high-profile video producers like John Stagliano, whom Cambria helped to defend against obscenity charges in the District of Columbia against charges that included a claim that Evil Angel's website allowed "provision of adult content to minors," which Cambria opined was added "to dirty the case up."

The session concluded with criminal defense attorney (and FSC Board chair) Jeffrey Douglas noting that many retailers in Las Vegas have been prosecuted for carrying too many adult materials in stock, which the city claimed made them "adult businesses" and subject to various time, place and manner restrictions.

The day's final session was titled, "If I Knew Then What I Know Now," and included a full roster of industry professionals: Greg Clayman of Video Secrets, Alec Helmy of XBIZ, Susan Colvin of California Exotic Novelties (and before that, CPLC), Vivid's Steve Hirsch, and former AVN publisher Paul Fishbein.

Paul Cambria moderated the panel, and his first question was, "What are harmful business practices in the adult industry?" Of course, everyone had an opinion, with Clayman bashing "quick buck artists" who are just in the business for a quick profit with no care whether their actions give the industry a bad name, and no attempt to build trust with consumers.

Helmy agreed with Clayman, but added that people who produce "over the top content" like "fake reality stuff" are also bad for the industry. Colvin warned that cheap knock-offs of existing popular novelties being sold at a reduced price are a problem, generating many consumer complaints and making it difficult for reputable companies to gain (or regain) customers' trust. Hirsch railed against "freeloaders"—both pirates and others who seek to profit by riding the coattails of legitimate businesses. "We just can't afford that anymore," he stated.

Cambria changed the question a bit when he came to Fishbein, asking whether it's proper for an industry trade magazine to accept ads from the industry's shadier practitioners. Fishbein responded that "it's not the role of a trade magazine to censor anyone," but he also said that it's the magazine's duty to support the industry in general and its issues.

A question regarding what longstanding business practices are now obsolete brought a variety of responses, including a stubborn adherence to outmoded distribution models, a failure to bring unique products to market, the necessity of listening to customers' comments and suggestions, and Fishbein's declaration, "I hate to say it but print is dying."

Cambria also asked about the efficacy of using focus groups to test new products and campaigns, and while most of the panel agreed that such groups could be a useful tool, Clayman stated flatly, "It'll never happen." Hirsch also expressed concerns that the focus group might reveal trade secrets to a competitor.

Cambria's final question hearkened back to the seminar's title, when he asked "What would you do over?" However, the almost universal response was some form of, "Well, I'm not big on looking back..." However, some (including Hirsch and Fishbein) recognized that they had been too slow in adopting evolving technologies like the internet, while Colvin felt that her company had been late in recognizing that customers would want such innovations as rechargeable and solar-powered sex toys, and Clayman said that he wished he had paid more attention to whether new products he was tempted to offer actually fit into his company's core competency.

The panel generated few questions from the audience and concluded early, leaving attendees extra time to get ready for the FSC Awards cocktail reception, which followed directly after the seminars ended.

Sadly, most of the panels had sparse attendance, suggesting that it might be better to schedule future summits in concert with other industry events—but such discussions were left for another day.