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Minneapolis Anti-pornography Ordinance

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Black and white photograph of anti-pornography activists on Lake Street, 1979.

Linda Wejcman, Liz Anderson, Cathy Blacer, Jacqui Thompson, and Becky Anderson on Lake Street. Photographed by Meg McKinney on July 28, 1979, for the Minneapolis Tribune. Used with the permission of Sandy Date and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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.

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.

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.

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  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Brest, Paul, and Ann Vandenberg. “Politics, Feminism and the Constitution: The Anti-Pornography Movement in Minneapolis.” Stanford Law Review 39, no. 3 (February 1987): 607–661.

Butler, Pamela. "Sex and the Cities: Re-Evaluating 1980s Feminist Politics in Minneapolis and St. Paul." In Queer Twin Cities: Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project, 203–239. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Downs, Donald Alexander. The New Politics of Pornography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Duggan, Lisa, and Nan Hunter, eds. Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Ehrman-Solberg, Kevin. "The Battle of the Bookstores and Gay Sexual Liberation in Minneapolis." Senior Honors Thesis, History Department, Augsburg College, 2014.

Ferris and Edward Alexander Subject File, Vertical Files
Special Collections Department, Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis
Description: Newspaper clippings relevant to the Alexander brothers in Minneapolis collected over several decades by reference librarians.

Hickey, Georgina. "The Geography of Pornography: Neighborhood Feminism and the Battle Against ‘Dirty Bookstores" in Minneapolis.’" Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 32, no. 1 (2001): 125–151.

Organization Records, Organizing Against Pornography, 1975–1990
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00183.xml
Description: Administrative records (1984-1990), including bylaws, board minutes, staff files, and financial records; public outreach materials; subject files; newspaper clippings; and audio and video tapes documenting the efforts of an organization formed to increase public awareness of the relationship between pornography and violence against women. See especially the transcripts of “public hearings on ordinances to add pornography as discrimination against women.”

Pornography Subject File, Vertical Files
Special Collections Department, Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis
Description: Newspaper clippings relevant to the pornography controversy in Minneapolis collected over several decades by reference librarians.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of anti-pornography activists on Lake Street, 1979.
Black and white photograph of anti-pornography activists on Lake Street, 1979.
Black and white photograph of the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Lake Street, Minneapolis, 1956.
Black and white photograph of the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Lake Street, Minneapolis, 1956.
Black and white photograph of Anti-pornography activists at Chicago Avenue and Lake Street, c.1980.
Black and white photograph of Anti-pornography activists at Chicago Avenue and Lake Street, c.1980.
Black and white photograph of a candlelight vgil at Mayor Fraser’s office, 1983.
Black and white photograph of a candlelight vgil at Mayor Fraser’s office, 1983.
Black and white photograph of a Anti-pornography protest on Lake Street, 1984.
Black and white photograph of a Anti-pornography protest on Lake Street, 1984.

Turning Point

On October 18, 1983, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon direct the Minneapolis city zoning committee to see pornography as a “form of discrimination on the basis of sex.” Their advice changes the terms of the debate over pornography in the city and offers a premise for a proposed amendment to the city’s civil rights ordinance.

Chronology

1969

The Alexander brothers purchase the Rialto Theater and begin screening films like I Am Curious Yellow and Deep Throat. The theater becomes the center of a new adult entertainment district on Lake Street.

1977

Residents of the Powderhorn and Central neighborhoods organize Neighborhood Fightback to protest the growth of businesses selling pornography on Lake Street.

1977

The Minneapolis City Council enacts a zoning ordinance to ban adult entertainment businesses from locating within five hundred feet of churches, schools, or residences. The measure does not survive a court challenge.

1979

Neighborhood residents organize small groups of women into action groups that embrace bookstore "browsing" as a protest strategy.

1982

A federal district court declares zoning restrictions on pornography unconstitutional.

Autumn 1983

Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon teach a class on pornography at the University of Minnesota Law School. The Powderhorn and Central neighborhood associations combine to form the Joint Neighborhood Pornography Task Force.

October 1983

The city council hires Dworkin and MacKinnon to amend the Minneapolis civil rights ordinance to include pornography.

October 18, 1983

Dworkin and MacKinnon testify before the city's zoning committee. They assert that pornography violates the civil rights of women.

December 12, 1983

MacKinnon and Dworkin begin to conduct hearings on the amended ordinance before the Government Operations Committee of the city council.

December 30, 1983

In a seven-to-six vote, the Minneapolis City Council approves the amended ordinance.

January 5, 1984

Mayor Donald Fraser vetoes the pornography ordinance.

January 1984

The city of Minneapolis creates the Task Force on Pornography, which holds sixteen meetings over six months. In May, this body issues a report that calls for more limited regulation of pornography.

1984

Anti-pornography activism continues. Protesters march on the Rialto Theater, organize a "porn dump" on the steps of city hall, and establish the Pornography Resource Center on Lake Street.

July 13, 1984

By one vote, the city council passes a revised version of the provision proposed by the Task Force on Pornography. Mayor Donald Fraser vetoes the measure

February 1986

The U.S. Supreme Court affirms a lower-court ruling that invalidates the pornography ordinance approved in Indianapolis.