By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
"If I'm in violation of the law, cite me," Leonard says. "Let me plead my case before a judge and jury. If I did wrong, okay. I've got no problem with that. But there was no due process with my signs. These motherfuckers just started pulling things off the fucking walls!"
And that got his Italian blood boiling. Now he wants the governor and the attorney general to return his signs personally.
"It's like Mussolini says: 'In your heart, you know I'm right,'" Leonard proclaims. "I love my country, but I hate my government. And thank God they did this to me, because I'm hardheaded and stupid enough to fight it. This time, they fucked with the wrong bald-headed wop motherfucker."
Previous Westword article|
"The Offal Truth"
For the state, the issue is simple: Regulation 47-900 prohibits profanity, the permission of profanity, and activity that is considered offensive. And Leonard's signs more than qualify, officials say. Robert Dodd, the assistant attorney general handling the state's case, calls Leonard's language "completely over the top."
"It's defamatory to individuals by name. It uses racial and gender epithets. It's beyond mere profanity," Dodd said during an October hearing. "If this speech is protected, then there's not speech that's unprotected. This is the most extreme variety."
But it's not just what Leonard wrote on his signs; it's where he displayed them.
Bars serve alcohol, and alcohol lowers people's inhibitions and makes them "perhaps more likely to become involved in altercations," Dodd points out. The X-rated signs in Leonard's bar, he argues, "could easily result in, at minimum, disagreements leading to altercations and all manner of disorderliness." So the state has "a public safety basis" for prohibiting foul language in bars, he says. "The purpose of the regulation is not because people don't like profanity and don't want to hear it. The issue is the location."
Nonsense, says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Denver chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state on Leonard's behalf in September. Silverstein calls Regulation 47-900 "blatantly unconstitutional," "antiquated," "moribund" and "more a joke than a serious constitutional issue."
After all, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear time and time again that a state cannot willfully censor speech. In one case during the '70s, the court ruled that California could not punish a man for proclaiming "Fuck the Draft" on the back of his jacket.
"The court said, 'One man's vulgarity is another man's lyric,'" Silverstein says. "And profanity is certainly Mr. Carlo's lyric. He loves four-letter words."
But even if the regulation were constitutional, Silverstein says, it's hopelessly vague. And nowhere at the Liquor Enforcement Division are there written guidelines, policies or even training manuals defining "profanity" or "offensive activity." State officials have admitted as much. And if the state doesn't have guidelines, how is Leonard supposed to know what he can or cannot say?
Should he eject customers who say "damn"? How about "hell"? Should he censor R-rated movies, like Platoon, that happen to flash across the bar's TV screen? Should he scan every newspaper, magazine and tabloid in the tavern for bad words and X-rated ads? Would he get in trouble if someone left a copy of Playboyin his bathroom? And what about the tattoo on Leonard's head? Under regulation 47-900, is he prevented from walking into his own bar?
"I have not seen any legal authority giving the state special power to ignore the First Amendment simply because beer or hard liquor might be around," Silverstein says. "The state has been unable to trace any kind of trouble to the signs or the language on the signs."
Silverstein also contends that the state seized Leonard's signs without a warrant and then initiated an administrative proceeding -- one that ultimately could lead to the revocation of his liquor license -- without first giving Leonard a chance to defend himself. In fact, Silverstein suggests, the state moved ahead with that proceeding in order to punish Leonard for criticizing the liquor division publicly after his signs were taken.
But Leonard's isn't the only liquor-related business to offend the bluenoses at the Colorado Department of Revenue. In 1995, Broadway Brewing introduced a seasonal Scottish microbrew called Road Dog Ale, which featured a label designed by artist Ralph Steadman with this quote from Hunter S. Thompson: "Good Beer, No Shit." Using the anti-profanity regulation, as well as federal and state standards for beer labels, liquor-enforcement officials determined that "Good Beer, No Shit" was obscene.
The ACLU also sued on behalf of Broadway Brewing. And in court, David Reitz, director of liquor enforcement, and Renny Fagan, then the executive director of the Department of Revenue, offered some insight into how they defined "obscenity." It was common sense, they said: If a word is generally considered a swear word and "is not common in official discourse and would not be appropriate in a formal social setting," it probably would not belong on a beer bottle. Or in a bar, for that matter.
"It strikes me as common sense that a swear word is obscene and indecent and does not belong in official discourse in our state," Fagan said. "You don't see a swear word advertised in normal advertisements, you don't see a swear word in official publications that adhere to good taste. Coloradans know that liquor and beer is a regulated product. So to some extent, citizens look to the government as one means of enforcing social norms for both discourse and decency. And, therefore, the linkage is that a swear word does not belong on a beer bottle."