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Testing free speech at the Minneapolis city council: the Minneapolis Anti-pornography Ordinance

The proposed law was the culmination of a movement begun in 1977 to fight the expansion of adult entertainment businesses along Lake Street.

In 1969, the Alexander brothers bought the Rialto Theater on Lake Street (shown here in 1953) and began showing adult movies there.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1977, residents of South Minneapolis mobilized to fight the expansion of adult entertainment businesses along Lake Street. In 1983, after years of unsuccessful protest, these activists sought help from nationally known feminist theorists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. MacKinnon and Dworkin wrote a controversial amendment to the city’s expansive civil rights ordinance that defined pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights.

In the late 1960s, a pair of Minneapolis entrepreneurs named Ferris and Edward Alexander sensed opportunity. In 1969, the brothers bought the Rialto Theater on Lake Street. Once a destination for family moviegoers, the theater began screening movies like Deep Throat. Soon a bookstore opened next to the theater. An adult entertainment district began to take shape on Lake Street.

The Alexanders enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the distribution of pornography in Minnesota. They owned a string of businesses across the state. But these Lake Street storefronts would serve as the core of what one newspaper called their “empire of smut.”

The cluster of pornographic bookstores and theaters attracted men from all over the Twin Cities. There, they watched movies, read magazines, and sought sexual encounters with both prostitutes (men as well as women) and other patrons.

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Residents of the Powderhorn and Central areas were dismayed by the way these businesses altered the climate of their neighborhoods. They objected most to customers harassing women on the surrounding streets.

In 1977, residents mobilized in protest and organized a picket line. City officials responded with a zoning ordinance that outlawed the operation of adult bookstores and theaters within five hundred feet of churches, schools, or residential areas. The injunction would have forced the Alexander brothers to close most of their businesses. The brothers sued the city and won.

In the wake of this ruling, activists regrouped in 1979. Instead of picketing, women volunteers organized themselves into action groups they wryly called “afternoon bridge clubs” and “sewing circles.” They spent several hours each week “browsing” bookstores. Like temperance activists in the nineteenth century, they saw how the mere presence of women disrupted an all-male environment. They were courteously confrontational. They greeted people at the door and stood “behind customers, watching customers watch the quarter movies.”

Police and city officials sympathized with the protesters. But instead of fighting street harassment, police focused on the men inside the bookstores who sought sexual encounters with other men. Between 1979 and 1985, they arrested over thirty-five hundred men for “indecent conduct.”

By 1983, the Lake Street pornography district was still flourishing. Frustrated activists decided to seek help from Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, two nationally-known feminist theorists who argued that pornography scripted women’s oppression. The women were living in Minneapolis for a time while they taught a class at the University of Minnesota law school.

Dworkin and MacKinnon brought new life to the anti-pornography campaign when they called for what opponents saw as a de facto ban. They appeared before the city zoning committee in October 1983. Pornography, they argued, was a crime against women. The city council hired them to amend the Minneapolis civil rights ordinance to define pornography as “the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted” and “a form of discrimination on the basis of sex.” The amendment allowed those who had been harmed by pornography to sue its producers and purveyors.

For the next two months, debate over the measure consumed the city. On December 30, 1983, the city council approved the ordinance in a seven-to-six vote. Six days later, it was vetoed by Mayor Donald Fraser, who argued it would never hold up to judicial review.

Dworkin and MacKinnon used the publicity generated by the measure to launch a national campaign. Cities all over the country considered adopting the ordinance they wrote in Minneapolis.

After the mayor’s veto, debate over pornography continued to rage in the city. In January 1984, Fraser created the Task Force on Pornography to find consensus on the issue. After a series of meetings, the body proposed a new version of the ordinance, drawing fire from Dworkin and MacKinnon. The pair countered with another measure which offered a narrowed definition of pornography and a less ambitious “trafficking” provision.

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In July, the city council approved the new ordinance. The mayor immediately vetoed it.

In 1986, the U. S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower-court decision that declared such measures to be unconstitutional.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Correction: This article and its headline have been updated to accurately characterize the amendment passed by the Minneapolis City Council.