SACRAMENTO — With Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra) playing a pivotal role, the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Monday approved a bill to broaden the definition of obscenity in California and encourage more prosecutions against peddlers of lewd materials.
Calderon fashioned a compromise, combining language in a bill by Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette (R-Northridge) with a bill by Sen. Waddie Deddeh (D-Chula Vista) that passed the Senate last year.
Calderon said the compromise measure strikes a balance between the current standards and the stronger language in La Follette's original proposal, which was supported by church and community groups in his 59th District. The compromise bill passed the committee on a 5-1 vote and was sent to the Ways and Means Committee.
An anti-pornography group held a rally in Montebello on Jan. 2 to marshal support for La Follette's bill, but Calderon said after the hearing that his vote for the measure was not influenced by the protest.
Besides Calderon, committee members who supported the compromise were Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach), Don Rogers (R-Bakersfield) and Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles). Assemblyman Robert J. Campbell (D-Richmond) voted against the proposal. Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles) abstained.
Supporters of La Follette's bill, including the state Congress of Parents, Teachers and Students Inc., said they regard Monday's vote as a significant step toward changing the law because 10 previous attempts to broaden it have stalled in legislative committees since 1975. Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the proposal would have a chilling effect on bookstores and movie distributors and could lead to censorship.
At issue is a key phrase in California's law defining obscenity in part as matter "utterly without redeeming social importance." Attempts have been made to broaden that definition since a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller vs. California described obscene material as "matter taken as a whole, which lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value."
Adopted by 38 States
The Miller standard has been adopted by 38 states, but California has retained the old definition.
Deddeh's bill, introduced last year, reflected wording in the Miller decision. The state Senate passed the bill in April, but changed the definition to read "without significant redeeming social importance."
La Follette's bill also sought to impose the Miller standard. But under the compromise worked out by Calderon her bill was merged into Deddeh's and the language was revised to define obscenity in part as matter "which taken as a whole lacks significant literary, artistic, political, educational or scientific value."
The Rev. Lou Sheldon, state chairman of the Anaheim-based California Coalition for Traditional Values and a supporter of the compromise, said it amounted to 75% of the Miller standard and would be a major step toward cracking down on pornography in the state.
Bernard David Walter, an assistant district attorney from San Francisco, told the committee that imposing the tougher standard would provide prosecutors with a tool to crack down on pornographers. But he conceded that it might take years before the courts rule on the constitutionality of the new standard.
Marjorie Schwartz, representing the American Civil Liberties Union, said after the hearing that if the bill becomes law it would send a signal to prosecutors to increase prosecutions on a range of materials, not merely hard-core pornography. She said that in states that have adopted the tougher Miller standards, prosecutors have attempted to label "Carnal Knowledge," a critically acclaimed R-rated film, as obscene. Schwartz added that Monday's action was the first time in 20 years a legislative committee has passed a bill with such a broad definition of the obscenity standards.
Calderon, who was credited by La Follette as the key committee member in negotiating the compromise, spent much of the afternoon darting in and out of the hearing huddling with supporters and opponents of the bill.
Calderon said after the hearing that he helped fashion the compromise because of his concern about the spread of pornography and because of his friendship with La Follette. "I believe we need some strengthening of the law," he said.
But the assemblyman, who abstained when La Follette's bill came before the committee last spring, said the decision was "one of the hardest" he has had to make because the issue is charged with emotion.
However, he said that recent protests in his district, which includes Alhambra, Montebello, Pico Rivera, Monterey Park and part of Whittier, did not play a role in his vote. Calderon declined to attend the Jan. 2 rally held by Concerned Clergy and Laity, an anti-pornography group organized with the help of Sheldon's coalition.
After the hearing Monday, an angry Calderon confronted Sheldon and the Rev. Thomas B. Lamb, pastor of Cross and Crown Lutheran Church in Montebello, who heads Concerned Clergy and Laity.
Calderon complained that the two ministers "could have handled the issue much more responsibly. . . . I felt you had prejudged me based on no facts other than I along with three other members of the committee abstained the first time this bill came up."
Sheldon and Lamb did not respond to the criticism. They shook hands with Calderon and thanked him for his work on the bill.