Michael Pill, the attorney for pornography franchise Capital Video Corporation, handed out a memorandum (PDF) at the October 19 City Council meeting that seriously misrepresents the facts and issues at stake in the controversy over Capital Video’s plans to open a 6,200-square-foot adult emporium at 135 King Street, adjacent to a residential neighborhood. Dr. Pill (he has a Ph.D.) attempts to blow smoke in the eyes of our elected officials with irrelevant horror stories of runaway censorship, obscuring the very modest and well-tested zoning restrictions actually under consideration. To this end, he makes baseless accusations of harassment, attempting to put a sinister spin on citizens’ exercise of their constitutional rights to participate in the political process.
We note that Dr. Pill is an expert on SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) litigation, who has often defended homeowners against developers’ attempts to intimidate them with burdensome legal bills. Thus, he should be well aware that he is on dangerous ground when he warns Northampton residents not to fight the porn shop because his client’s resistance to adult-use zoning restrictions “could precipitate litigation that may cost each side more than $100,000. Where will the City of Northampton get that money?” he asks, conveniently ignoring the fact that his client has the power to save us that money by not filing frivolous appeals (as they did most recently in Kittery).
Let’s take Dr. Pill’s allegations one at a time. He cites an anonymous Northampton lawyer who was afraid that he, his family and his firm would be harassed and intimidated if he accepted Capital Video as a client. People are afraid of a lot of things. Some people wear tinfoil hats because they’re afraid the CIA can hear their thoughts. That doesn’t mean it’s true. Without any attempt to contact the other side for their story, Dr. Pill charged in with guns blazing, eager to depict NoPornNorthampton and the 1,000+ citizens who have signed our petition as a lynch mob ganging up on poor defenseless free-speech advocates.
What might this “harassment” have consisted of? NoPornNorthampton has not hesitated to publicize the names of local business owners who are on the porn-shop’s payroll, to enable citizens to hold them accountable for profiting at the community’s expense. Boycotts and protests are time-honored weapons against irresponsible corporate greed, essential to the effectiveness of civil rights advocates, environmentalists, and labor unions. You can’t boycott a business that exploits workers and destroys neighborhoods unless you know which one it is.
As Dr. Pill argues in his treatise Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP): Substantive Law and Litigation Strategy (Massachusetts Bar Association, 1998), “a real estate developer who applies to a public agency for a license, permit or approval becomes at least a ‘limited public figure'” for purposes of defamation law. NoPornNorthampton is well within its rights to invite public comment on Barry and Annette Goldberg’s decision to rent 135 King Street to Capital Video.
Dr. Pill’s “slippery slope” argument against censorship is legal grandstanding unrelated to the actual issues before the City Council. Unlike the famous Nazis in Skokie, Capital Video is not planning a one-time march through our neighborhood to express whatever ideas pornography is supposed to express–sex equals violence, perhaps, or women are trash. We would agree with Dr. Pill that these ideas, though pernicious, deserve First Amendment protection. No, Capital Video proposes a long-term business presence in Northampton, with a type of enterprise that has well-documented adverse effects on its neighbors. As such it is subject to reasonable siting restrictions like any other business.
Somehow, pornographers themselves have no trouble making the content-based distinctions that Dr. Pill suggests will tie city officials up in knots. When was the last time a copy of the Kinsey Report or Lady Chatterley’s Lover found its way onto Capital Video’s shelves by mistake? “The definition of pornography has shifted dramatically over the years,” he rightly observes–but as his own examples show, it has shifted entirely in a more permissive direction.
Dr. Pill evidently believes that there are cases where zoning boards should heed citizen complaints about possible negative effects of neighboring uses. For instance, in 1998 he represented homeowners who sought to block Amherst’s multiracial Hope Community Church from building a new sanctuary, on the grounds that it would attract too much traffic. (“Plan to build church stymied”, Sunday Republican, April 5, 1998, p. A17.) This litigation cost the church hundreds of thousands of dollars over five years.
Similarly, in 1996, Dr. Pill represented an Amherst couple who wanted to force their next-door neighbor to take down a tepee in her backyard, which she used for meditation, New Age therapy and spiritual drumming. (“Tepee neighbors resume ban effort”, Springfield Union-News, April 9, 1996, p. B1; “Zoning board rules tepee can stay”, Union-News, April 12, 1996, p. B4.) Is Capital Video likely to be a better neighbor to homes, schools, counseling centers and churches than these defendants were? The evidence suggests otherwise.
Based on our own conversations with Dr. Pill, he appears to have strong ideals about defending dissenters and underdogs against oppression. We simply ask him to take a closer look at who is really the “little guy” in this situation. Is it Capital Video–a $21 million business, a leader in an industry that profits from exploiting and demeaning human sexuality? Or is it the residents of a modest neighborhood in a small town, who want to protect their homes and children from the increased crime rates and economic blight that adult businesses cause? How about the men and women who perform in porn films–many of whom get drawn into the industry as teenage runaways, child abuse survivors, or victims of international sex trafficking, and whose working conditions are so Dickensian that they lack even the right to insist on protection against sexually transmitted diseases? Taking the unpopular side is no guarantee that one is defending an important principle. Sometimes a position is unpopular because most people have the sense to see that it’s wrong.
Having taken on Capital Video as a client, Dr. Pill may feel obligated to continue in this role, for fear of prejudicing his client by his withdrawal. While fulfilling that ethical duty, however, we hope he will also consider his duty not to make frivolous and abusive arguments, and restrict his zealous defense of his client to the issues and facts act
ually under consideration, without further personal attacks or irrelevant political rhetoric.