‘Smutty souvenir’ or harmless fun? Myrtle Beach should not decide

By The Editorial Board

Words and images on T-shirts or any type of clothing are far different from illegal activity the messages may seem to suggest. That’s obvious - or should be.

But a city of Myrtle Beach proposed ordinance would put smutty souvenirs in the same category as illegal drugs.

The zoning change proposal, from city manager John Pedersen, is several steps from becoming an ordinance; however, it is attracting attention because it is sweeping in dictating what merchants may sell in their shops and in limiting how they try to attract buyers.

Here are the highlights of the proposal, applicable to Ocean Boulevard stores from 16th Avenue North to Sixth Avenue South:

It would prohibit drug paraphernalia (items such as cigarette paper, pipes for smoking) and sexually-oriented or weapons-related merchandise. Barkers, who try to entice passersby into stores, also would be banned. The proposal in its current form would place the city on a slippery slope. Last week, council members Randal Wallace and Mike Lowder quite rightly asked that the council delay initial approval pending a briefing from City Attorney Tom Ellenburg.

Typically, the council votes initial approval, known as first reading, before a zoning matter goes to the Planning Commission, which makes its recommendation. Then the proposal has a second and final reading. (Horry County Council rules require three readings.) The anti-smut proposal is expected to be on the Myrtle Beach City Council agenda Tuesday.

The city manager, with backing from council members, is trying to make Ocean Boulevard more family friendly. That’s not necessarily accomplished by attempting to legislate public morals. Who determines what makes T-shirts “sexually oriented”? Would Pedersen ban T’s with images of handguns? Or certain naughty words? How about marijuana leaves?

On the radio, Pedersen answered questions about enforcement by saying police officers would be trained for what to look for. City law enforcement officers have much more important duties on the streets and sidewalks than checking merchandise in Ocean Boulevard shops. One beachwear retailer made a valid point about the proposed ordinance having unclear language. Cigarette-rolling paper is legal; retailers do not control what buyers of rolling paper put in it.

Pedersen’s proposal also would require security camera systems, which would make sense for retail businesses throughout the city. Much of the ordinance, however, goes beyond the expectations and authority of municipal government. The Planning Commission should give the proposal close scrutiny, and the council should be cautious.

A family-oriented environment on Ocean Boulevard is a good goal that surely can be achieved without draconian measures – likely conflicting with the First Amendment – in dictating what merchants may offer in their shops.

One person’s “smutty souvenir” may be quite acceptable, albeit slightly distasteful, to tourists from Ashtabula, Ohio.