House Panel Approves of Revising Idaho Law Linking Cinema Liquor Licenses to Obscenity Ban 

click to enlarge When an Idaho movie theater screened Fifty Shades of Grey, Idaho State Police threatened to pull the theater's liquor license. - UNIVERSAL PICTURES / FOCUS FEATURES
  • Universal Pictures / Focus Features
  • When an Idaho movie theater screened Fifty Shades of Grey, Idaho State Police threatened to pull the theater's liquor license.

An Idaho House committee has cleared the path for a measure that would unshackle beer and wine licenses at Idaho movie theaters from state obscenity laws.

As written, House Bill 544 removes language from current alcohol beverage laws that addresses liquor sales at Gem State movie houses—specifically banning its sale during screenings of films that may include adult themes.

"I want to express my support for this," said Rep. John McCrostie (D-Garden City). "This is a good cleanup bill to strengthen First Amendment protections of speech and expression."

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Joe Palmer (R-Meridian) came in the wake of a lawsuit filed in January by Meridian Cinemas against Idaho State Police, alleging ISP conducted a form of censorship by threatening to pull liquor licenses from theaters when certain R-rated films are screened. In particular, ISP warned Meridian Cinemas it could lose its license over a 2015 screening of Fifty Shades of Grey.

At least one constitutional scholar told Boise Weekly that the current law, tying alcohol sales to R-rated films, may run afoul of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

"It seems to me that the Idaho statute has the effect of chilling expression protected by the U.S. Constitution," Shaakirrah Sanders, associate professor of law at the University of Idaho. "There's a huge reason why we have the First Amendment. It is supposed to protect you from chilling speech or censorship."

Palmer's bill would remove the list of specific sexual acts from alcohol beverage laws, instead pointing to pornography that is considered obscene by federal or state law.

Palmer told the House State Affairs Committee Tuesday morning that the proposed change had been reviewed by ISP and the office of the Idaho attorney general. The committee voted unanimously to forward the measure to the full Idaho House with a "do pass" recommendation.

If passed, the revised law would retroactively take effect January 2015, thus possibly negating the Meridian Cinemas lawsuit.

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