An adult bookstore unlocked its doors to the public Friday evening despite a city ruling last month that denied the owner's request to locate along Gordon Highway.
In an act of civil disobedience, Augusta Video X-Mart General Manager Jimmy Cassandro opened for business, a move that landed him in jail Friday night.
Attorneys representing the south Augusta store said their client's First Amendment right to free speech was violated by being denied the right to open. The Augusta Commission had turned down the store's special zoning request last month, a designation that is required for any business selling sexually oriented material.
"I believe in the constitution, and I believe this country should be free," Mr. Cassandro said shortly after opening up for business. "I feel like nobody should take away our right to be free."
A few hours later, however, he was arrested. Mr. Cassandro has been charged with disorderly conduct and operating a business without a license, said Richmond County Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Smith.
"Our thing is, the issue pertaining to this bookstore is in the court system, and we think that is the appropriate place for this to be decided," Sgt. Smith said. He said he was notified of the store's opening by Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength.
Before the arrival of sheriff's officers, Mr. Cassandro, pacing the store's floor, said that he had never before been arrested and that he was "a little nervous" about the likelihood of going to jail.
Mr. Cassandro said he had served four customers as of 10 p.m. None of those customers will be charged with any crime, the sheriff's office reports.
Less than a month ago, hundreds of protesters marched outside the building to oppose the store's zoning request.
On Friday night, the only indication that Augusta Video X-Mart was open for business was a large white banner with red lettering on the building's exterior that read "Now Open." A brand-new 15- by-25-foot American flag was flying from a pole in the store's parking lot.
"I want everyone to be reminded that this is the United States," Mr. Cassandro said of the large flag. "That's the reason I love this country."
In preparation for the store's opening, shop employees spent the past 15 days stocking rows of thin white shelves with sexually explicit material, including adult magazines, videos, DVDs and novelties. The store also carries lingerie, clothing, sexually explicit gift cards and gag gifts.
Its opening follows a series of responses by city and bookstore attorneys regarding its right to operate in Augusta.
Just one day earlier, Augusta commissioners voted to amend the city's adult entertainment ordinance, saying the changes are part of an effort to prevent Augusta Video X-Mart from opening at the Molly Pond Road location, near Gordon Highway and Doug Barnard Parkway.
Under the city's amended ordinance, sexually oriented businesses - adult bookstores and erotic-dance establishments - no longer are required to secure a special zoning exception in Augusta. Instead, they will be permitted only in areas zoned for light or heavy industry.
The changes also prohibit sexually oriented businesses from opening in areas deemed to be in "gateway corridors," including the Gordon Highway area.
The constitutionality of the city's old ordinance already is being challenged in U.S. District Court.
Although bookstore attorneys say the city's newly amended adult entertainment ordinance is much better than one currently being contested in federal court, Augusta Video X-Mart still plans to challenge the law, saying proper public notice of the changes never took place.
"There has to be public debate, just like with any ordinance," said Augusta Video X-Mart attorney Gary Edinger. "There are things government is supposed to consider when adopting legislation, including the effect it would have on speech, so apparently they didn't consider anything."
Bookstore attorneys have said they will ask for another hearing on an emergency basis early next week.
Staff Writer Albert Ross contributed to this article.
Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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