Shortly after four o’clock last January 22, when the sidewalks of Fort Worth’s red brick Main Street were crowded with shoppers, a team of city police barged into the lobby of the Empire Theater at 707 Main. They left a few minutes later bearing two glass showcases, an air filter machine, a telephone, 72 seats, a desk, several stools and ladders, a 16-millimeter movie projector, a movie screen, electrical wiring from the theater walls, and a copy of the film Deep Throat.
Two hundred and fifty miles away and three weeks later, the jurors in Harris County Court at Law No. 6 told Judge Thomas Routt that they were hopelessly deadlocked, three to three, in the case of State v. Joseph Maurice Spiegel. Mr. Spiegel was on trial for exhibiting Deep Throat at his Cinema West Theater in Houston; and inasmuch as these jurors were the second group in less than three months who could not agree that his choice of fare violated the Texas obscenity statute, District Attorney Carol Vance announced that he would no longer attempt to prosecute Linda Lovelace’s celebrated cinematic debut and other films of its… well… ilk.
Houston and Fort Worth currently represent diametric opposites in Texas obscenity law enforcement—Houston the wide-open town, as uninhibited as Chicago; Fort Worth the bulwark of tough-minded prosecution, where the most wide-open thing has been the tactics of the law enforcement officers themselves. The other major metropolitan areas fall somewhere in between, shutting down porn with varying success.
The central figure in Fort Worth’s “War on Pornography” is 34-year-old Joe Shannon, Jr., a conservative former state legislator who found himself in trouble a few years back when somebody discovered in mid-campaign that his divorce papers had been filed under the name “Joe Sharron.” A typographical error, he protested. The voters responded by allowing him to devote full time to his successful career as a criminal defense attorney, in lieu of legislative service.
When Tim Curry defeated liberal-backed Tarrant County DA Doug Crouch in a bitter 1972 campaign that polarized Fort Worth’s lawyers, he picked the good-natured, garrulous Shannon as the chief of his criminal division. They had been pals since high school days.
Shannon’s carefully furnished office looks more like something from a big Houston firm than the cramped, littered quarters that assistant DAs usually get. Friendship aside, there is perhaps a reason for that; Shannon freely mentions that, he turned down a job with Houston’s prestigious Baker & Botts, and his urbane manner—as remote from the blood-and-thunder prosecutor as from the bluenosed moralist—suggests that he could still be comfortable there. It also suggests that motives different from the usual ones drove him to become what Curry has labeled “the coordinator of our entire effort” against porn in Fort Worth. Shannon says these are friendship, ditty, and the intellectual challenge.
“Curry and I had gotten our law licenses the same day and had our law offices across the hall from each other,” he explains. “I’m not a career prosecutor. I told him I’d stay as long as I had a few new ideas.”
The United States Supreme Court’s latest crop of trend-shifting obscenity decisions, handed down in the summer of 1973, gave Shannon and hundreds of other prosecutors around the country quite a few new ideas. According to the Court’s old test, material had to be “utterly without redeeming social value” before it could be adjudged obscene; in the new test it merely had to lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Moreover, although the Court did not drop its insistence on a “contemporary community standard” for judging the prurience of alleged porn, it did make clear that the states could use something less than the national “community” that the Court had formerly required—a statewide standard, say, or even a local one.
These decisions (which have come to be known by the name of the first case, Miller v. California) did not require the states to take a stricter line against adult bookstores and movie houses; they merely allowed them to get tougher if they chose. But to prosecutors everywhere, the big news was the chance to drive home a “local” community standard; with dens of iniquity like Times Square and San Francisco’s Broadway no longer in the picture, a jury right there in River City could be free to use River City’s community standard. Operators of XXX-rated movie houses shuddered, DAs rejoiced, and a spate of arrests followed.
Texas was no exception, despite the fact that the Legislature had thoughtfully copied the old Supreme Court test into the state obscenity law, and Texas prosecutors were therefore still required to prove everything they had had to prove before Miller. Paradoxically, it was Miller’s invitation to look at porn in light of a local community standard that ignited the prosecutorial bonfires in Fort Worth, even though there is every reason to think that the “community standard” required by the Texas statute continues to be a national one, since it was written and passed by legislators who had never heard of Miller.
Debatable legal niceties like that were not uppermost in the minds of Texas prosecutors, however. After the Miller decision Shannon assembled a special task force to move against the fourteen adult movie houses and bookstores that had sprouted in the Court’s protective shadow during more lenient days. These emporia, like their counterparts elsewhere, were engaged in a rapidly accelerating contest to show movies and books more explicit than their neighbors’ down the street. Shannon went after them with a force consisting entirely of volunteers.
“Every one of these guys had been out of law school less than a year when we got started on this porno thing,” he says. “It was kind of like Nader’s Raiders. These guys, boy! Enthusiastic… eager… they’d get into the law books and root that stuff out. We briefed obscenity laws to a fare-thee-well… We’ve tried to do it real lawyer-like because you’re walking a very tight rope between obscenity prosecution and the First Amendment.