Two AIDS patients sued C&P Telephone, The City Paper and an owner of a taped sex message service for a total of $2.5 million yesterday because an ad about the deadly disease directed callers to a pornographic phone message.
The suit charges that the ad was false because the messages did not mention AIDS and that C&P Telephone and the service's owner defrauded callers who are billed for the calls. D.C. Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler refused to issue a temporary order forbidding the newspaper to run the advertisement because it had printed a corrective ad yesterday.
The ad ran in the Dec. 6 issue of The City Paper, a free local weekly newspaper. The ad read, "Are You Concerned About AIDS?" and gave a telephone number to call, noting that the call would cost $1.
Sunnye Sherman, an AIDS patient from Silver Spring and one of those who filed the lawsuit, said she called the number and was horrified to learn it was a woman describing a sex act over the telephone.
"What we heard was a violent, pornographic message," said Sunnye's mother, Ina Sherman, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "They're exploiting AIDS. I cannot believe C&P Telephone is a party to this fraud."
Web Chamberlin, a spokesman for C&P, said the telephone company has contracts with "about a half-dozen" companies selling sexual messages since the phone company's 976 exchange began. "We have been in the adult message business since early 1985," Chamberlin said. "It is not our responsibility for the content."
Robert Brager, an attorney for City Paper, which is owned by Chicago Reader-City Paper Inc. of Baltimore, said the paper ran a corrective ad yesterday that contained a number for a genuine AIDS hot line and a statement from the D.C. Committee Against Sexism and Exploitation that media firms have a responsibility to stop printing ads that exploit AIDS, violence toward women, prostitution or racism.
"The paper pulled the ad after a reader complained," Brager said. "No one reviews the copy for the ad. Someone calls in with an ad and it runs unless it's flagrantly abusive."
He said no one at the paper noticed that an ad for "Phone Fantasy" on an adjoining page carried the same telephone number as the AIDS ad. "It's not fraud on our part," said Brager of the ad. "It's just cruel."
Brager said that both ads were placed by Teletain Co. of Baltimore, which is the firm listed by C&P as owning the telephone line listed in the AIDS ad. However, Teletain was not named in the suit.
The lawsuit named Dennis Sobin, owner of several sex-oriented businesses and operator of another sex message telephone line offering "safe sex" messages, as a defendant. Sobin said he will countersue Monday if he is not dropped from the lawsuit and does not receive an apology. "I found the AIDS ad deplorable and wrote a letter to City Paper about it," he said.
David Shimony, executive director of Teletain, said he fired the employe who placed the AIDS ad. "It was his convoluted reasoning that instead of going out and getting a hooker, you could call this message and have your own self-satisfaction and avoid getting AIDS," Shimony said. "I felt it was in bad taste." Shimony said he had never heard of Sobin and has no connection with him.
James Mercer, a District lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Shermans and two District residents, Eugene Frey, an AIDS patient, and Daryl Cummings-Wilson, who said he is at risk for AIDS because he is gay, said he researched Teletain and Sobin's message services before filing the lawsuit.
Maxine Cohen, ad director of The City Paper, said the paper's new policy on sexually oriented ads limits them to one-eighth of a page and rejects graphically suggestive artwork.
Several community groups held a press conference yesterday to denounce the sex phone services and the AIDS ad. "These sex fantasy and AIDS information ads not only promote violence against women, they exploit our society's concern for AIDS," said Katherine Rice, director of the Women's Medical Center.
Chamberlin, at C&P, said later, "We are certainly not interested in being aligned with pornography. But pornography is in the mind of the listener. If it's not in violation of the rules by the Public Service Commission, we are not in a position to refuse that service."