Controversy over ‘Vagina Monologues’ billboard faces legislation

Kristen Daley

Once again, I must refer to the ad on the Entertainment pages each week at the beginning of February the huge “Vagina Monologues” ad, of course. Although shocking at first, many people seemed to have gotten used to it.
If you were bothered by it however, you could have, and may have, seen worse. All you would have to do is drive down Interstate 95 in West Haven, Connecticut. There, as you approached the sight of the Long Island Sound, your eyes could be filled with those taboo, unspoken words. If it bothered you, you’re not the only one.
A bill was recently introduced by Senator John McKinney of Fairfield and Senator Bill Aniskovich of Branford that proposes legislation that would limit sexual content on advertisements such as that of “The Vagina Monologues.”
Another billboard facing controversy is that for the play “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” which replaced the “Monologues” billboard after the production left the Palace Theatre in New Haven.
According to the article “Explicit billboards spur call for legislation,” (Joe Miksch), in the February 26 edition of the New Haven Register, the bill was to be the subject of a Transportation Committee public hearing.
Senator McKinney came up with the idea for the new legislation after receiving complaints about the “Monologues” billboard in West Haven. The billboard for the production resembled the advertisement in this paper, with the word “Vagina” in enormous letters.
McKinney believes that the legislature has the right to address the issue brought up by the bill because outdoor advertisers pay a state fee each year to do business in the state of Connecticut. However, a major concern in this situation is if censoring the billboards would be taking away the advertiser’s right to free speech.
Advertising like the billboard for the “Monologues,” is a commercial pursuit. Thus, the type of free speech protection that is provided to it by law is limited. “I consider myself very much a First Amendment defender,” said McKinney. “But there is a significant difference between commercial and noncommercial speech. In my research, I’ve found that commercial speech has less protection.”
Others disagree with the view of the Senators. Phil Tegeler, of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union thinks that “to ban sexually explicit advertising is unconstitutional.” McKinney says that he does not want to bring about an age of major censorship, however he does want the issue to be debated. “We need to have a discussion about what standards there are for materials on public highways,” said Senator McKinney. “The best solution is self-regulation by the industry and they say that they do that already, but they need to do a better job.”
Both parts of the argument seem convincing. Senator Aniskovich compares the possible censorship of material on billboards to the Department of Motor Vehicles’ refusal to issue personalized license plates that would bear foul language or suggestive messages.
However, Phil Tegeler added to his argument the idea that there is “a very high level of legal scrutiny that’s undertaken when laws try to prohibit non-obscene sexually explicit speech.” Tegeler continued by expressing his beliefs that none of the billboards could be considered obscene if not under the major scrutiny.
When it comes to “The Vagina Monologues” billboard, I agree with Tegeler. The word “vagina,” although not usually spoken in public, is not a word that has been oppressed by the hands of media censorship. You can hear the word on television and radio, and can read it in the newspaper. Doctors, nurses, and your own mothers say it with no problem. Sooner or later, both young boys and girls will learn what it is. In fact, today it seems that children are learning about things like that a lot earlier than ever before. Face it, we’ve evolved.
Pamela Morello, a junior Mass Communications and English major who has seen the play, feels that the billboard is just another way of getting the whole point of the play across. “That’s what the play was all about,” said Morello. “Being comfortable with the word, using it, and being able to discuss it openly.”
Kari Sacco, a junior psychology major, does not see the problem with the “Vagina Monologue” billboard. “It’s the proper word for it,” said Sacco. “Anyday, anywhere, you hear a derogatory term for it.” In fact, Sacco found the billboard amusing. “I got a kick out of it,” she said.
In the case of the outstanding billboard, it seems to be just a matter of taste. I believe that the purpose of “The Vagina Monologues” billboard was to create interest in the show, not to offend anyone. It could have been worse, and I do not doubt that many of you have seen much worse.