Jerry Kopel


The recent walkout by five Democrats from the House Health Committee over the chairperson's decision denying a member the opportunity to ask questions during the hearing wasn't a unique protest. Walkouts have happened before in the legislature and will happen again.

Back in 1976, I served as chairman of the 15 member House Judiciary Committee composed of nine Democrats and six Republicans. On Jan. 5, 1976 the state Supreme Court had ruled our anti-obscenity law unconstitutional as not conforming to the U.S. Supreme Court guidelines.

Soon after the 1976 session began, three obscenity bills were sent to the Judiciary Committee, one each by Reps. Ken Kramer (R), Chuck DeMoulin (D), and Sam Zakhem (R). Our first hearing was to take testimony.

I understood the need for control and had told the public from the House floor several days in advance "we will take testimony, but we will not tolerate preaching. There will be no demonstrations, no applause, no booing, no loud remarks. If there is, I will do one of two things, either clear the room or conclude the hearing." The press carried those remarks. We had more than 125 people appear and they were all well behaved.

Two days later we considered, during four hours of discussion, how to draft an obscenity bill from the three measures before us. I asked the committee for an informal vote on how to proceed. No one supported Rep. Zakhem's measure, six supported Rep. Kramer's version (which included adults and minors), and seven favored the DeMoulin bill (which dealt with minors only).

Unhappy that the Kramer bill was not going to be used, five of the six Republicans walked out of the room: Reps. Betty Dittemore, Kramer, Robert Eckelberry, Virginia Sears, and Larry Hobbs. Rep. Don Friedman, a firm believer in the First Amendment, remained to vote "no". The Demoulin bill which dealt only with minors, passed 8 to 1 after substantial amendments.

Unlike the five Democrats on the 2003 Health Committee who did return to the committee that meeting, the five Republicans in 1976 did not.

The Senate, seeking to also cover adults, refused to adopt the DeMoulin bill, and sent the House a bill by Sen. Ted Strickland (R) covering adults and minors. The House adhered to its position on the DeMoulin bill, and the Senate adhered to its position on the Strickland bill.

A compromise was reached. It usually is. A new DeMoulin bill which applied to minors could also be used by a municipality to apply to adults but with no tougher standard. Adults were barred from seeing live sexual performances and sado-masochism. It passed.

The House Judiciary Committee continued to meet normally during this turmoil with all 15 members attending.

What happened next? The Republicans regained control of the House in 1977. The 1976 law was repealed before there was a chance to test its constitutionality. The legislature passed a hard line obscenity bill carried by Sen. Strickland and Rep. Zakhem. It was declared unconstitutional in 1980 by the state Supreme Court.

Another milder obscenity law passed in 1981 conforming to the court guidelines and carried by Sen. Strickland and Rep. Jim Chaplin (R). Portions were amended in 1983, 1986, 1987 and 1994, but it is still on the statute books.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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