The Porn Warrior at Rest

Ferris Alexander's legacy

Two weeks ago, when the news finally leaked out of a Wayzata nursing home that Ferris Alexander had died on February 10, both the Twin Cities' dailies gave the story prominent play. "Ex-porn king Alexander dies at 84," blared the page one headline in the Star Tribune. The following day, the editors at the St. Paul Pioneer Press--however sheepish they may have felt at getting scooped on a three-week old story--still deemed it worthy of the front page of the B section.

That both papers would take notice of Alexander's demise was not a surprise. Alexander had not been in the news much for the past dozen years; he spent most of that time in seclusion, ill health, or federal prison. But from the 1960s to the early '90s, anti-porn crusaders in Minnesota cast Alexander as Public Enemy Number One--a dirty old man whose unseemly wares corrupted neighborhoods from Rochester to Minneapolis to Duluth.

In that spirit, legions of city, state, and federal authorities took a whack at Alexander's ever-expanding adult entertainment empire. As both the Strib and Pi Press noted, the feds finally succeeded in 1990, when Alexander was convicted of 25 counts of racketeering, obscenity, and tax fraud. By the time it was over, the government had driven him into bankruptcy, shipped him to the federal pen for a six-year stretch, and seized most of his assets, including 13 theaters and bookstores and some $9 million in inventory.

The federal government (with help from future presidential inquisitor Ken Starr) crushed Ferris Alexander and his adult-entertainment empire. Porn survived.
The federal government (with help from future presidential inquisitor Ken Starr) crushed Ferris Alexander and his adult-entertainment empire. Porn survived.

And by the end of his life, Alexander was himself in ruins. "I used to call him fairly regularly," recalls Randall Tigue, a past president of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union and a longtime lawyer to Alexander. "In his last years, he got so bitter. Basically, he only wanted to talk about how everybody screwed him. Not just the government, but people who associated with him. People in his family. His lawyers, including me."

Strangely, neither the Strib nor the Pi Press bothered to note the most obvious aspect of Alexander's legacy. While the government crushed the man, his cause triumphed. The materials that constituted the basis for Alexander's obscenity conviction (titles such as Let's Have a Fuck Party and Leather Sleaze) are now common fare. "Today, you can go almost anywhere in this country, from mainstream video stores to virtually any adult bookstore, and rent this sort of stuff," notes John Weston, a Los Angeles-based porn industry attorney who also represented Alexander.

But if the government's crackdown on Alexander did precious little to quell Minnesotans' appetite for porn, the legal tactics it used still outrage many civil libertarians. Alexander was convicted under a provision of the federal RICO law. Designed originally as a mob prosecution tool, RICO was amended in 1984 to include obscenity as a so-called predicate offense.

In essence, that meant that once Alexander was found guilty of an obscenity violation, the government could use RICO to take his other assets. And that's exactly what happened. The government seized some 100,000 magazines, books, and videotapes and, ultimately, tossed them in an incinerator because a jury deemed a grand total of seven videotapes and publications in the collection obscene.

In the wake of the conviction, Alexander appealed that forfeiture to the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorney Weston argued on his behalf. And who presented the government's case in favor of wholesale book burning? None other than former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, who would go on to much greater fame as the Clinton-era special prosecutor.

As Weston saw it, that use of RICO was patently unconstitutional. Some of the justices agreed. "I remember Justice Stevens asked, 'What if American Airlines was convicted of showing obscene films on a plane, what would the court have to order?' My response was that, under RICO, the court would be required to order forfeitures of every airplane in the fleet," Weston recalls.

In 1993, a bitterly divided court narrowly upheld the forfeiture. But, says Weston, the decision left a number of significant legal questions dangling and, in the end, the government never again employed the obscenity-predicated RICO law as a prosecutorial tool. Today, he notes, the battles over porn are typically argued as zoning and land-use issues, not free speech conflicts.

In his prime, Alexander relished his role as a First Amendment champion. While famously tight with money, he gave generously to the MCLU. For a while, he even donated office space to the organization. But in defeat, says attorney Tigue, Alexander dwelled on the unfairness of the his experience. Despite occasional estrangement from his late client, Tigue remains extremely sympathetic.

"Basically, he went from being one of the wealthiest people in the state of Minnesota to one of the poorest because he sold publications the government didn't like," Tigue says. "People who believe in free speech, people who believe what we read and watch is none of the government's business, recognize Ferris as a courageous freedom fighter."

Given the ubiquitous and ever more explicit nature of pornography a decade later, it is hard to ignore the central irony of the government's battles with Alexander. Take a drive around Minneapolis's Warehouse District (or leaf through the back pages of this publication), and it all seems very nearly quaint.

That, of course, conforms to a long-established historical trend. The newspaper man and social critic H.L. Mencken noted as much in his essay "Comstockery." The title refers to the 19th-century crusader Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the namesake for a federal anti-obscenity statute, the Comstock Law, that would later be applied to authors from Chaucer to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

"As a bookworm, I have gotten so used to lewd and lascivious books that I no longer notice them. They pour in from all directions," Mencken observed. "The most frivolous lady novelists write things that would have made a bartender blush to death two decades ago. If I open a new novel and find nothing about copulation in it, I suspect at once that it is simply a reprint of some forgotten novel of 1885, with a new name."

Mencken wrote those words in 1926. He could have been writing Ferris Alexander's obituary in 2003.

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