Opinions & Commentaries

[*]Zoning ordinances adopted by the city of Detroit differentiate between motion picture theaters which exhibit sexually explicit "adult" movies and those which do not. The principal question presented by this case is whether that statutory classification is unconstitutional because it is based on the content of communication protected by the First Amendment.[1]Effective November 2, 1972, Detroit adopted the ordinances challenged in this litigation. Instead of concentrating "adult" theaters in limited zones, these ordinances require that such theaters be dispersed. Specifically, an adult theater may not be located within 1,000 feet of any two other "regulated uses" or within 500 feet of a residential area.[2] The term "regulated uses" includes 10 different kinds of establishments in addition to adult theaters.[3]*53 The classification of a theater as "adult" is expressly predicated on the character of the motion pictures which it exhibits. If the theater is used to present "material distinguished or characterized by an emphasis on matter depicting, describing or relating to `Specified Sexual Activities' or `Specified Anatomical Areas,' "[4] it is an adult establishment.[5]*54 The 1972 ordinances were amendments to an "Anti-Skid Row Ordinance" which had been adopted 10 years earlier. At that time the Detroit Common Council made a finding that some uses of property are especially injurious to a neighborhood when they are concentrated in limited areas.[6] The decision to add adult motion picture theaters and adult book stores to the list of businesses which, apart from a special waiver,[7] could not be located within 1,000 feet of two other "regulated uses," was, in part, a response to the significant growth in the number *55 of such establishments.[8] In the opinion of urban planners and real estate experts who supported the ordinances, the location of several such businesses in the same neighborhood tends to attract an undesirable quantity and quality of transients, adversely affects property values, causes an increase in crime, especially prostitution, and encourages residents and businesses to move elsewhere.

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This case involves a constitutional challenge to a zoning ordinance, enacted by appellant city of Renton, Washington, that prohibits adult motion picture theaters from locating within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, park, or school. Appellees, Playtime Theatres, Inc., and Sea-First Properties, Inc., filed an action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington seeking a declaratory judgment that the Renton ordinance violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments and a permanent injunction against its enforcement. The District Court ruled in favor of Renton and denied the permanent injunction, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for reconsideration. 748 F. 2d 527 (1984). We noted probable jurisdiction, 471 U. S. 1013 (1985), and now reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.[1]*44 In May 1980, the Mayor of Renton, a city of approximately 32,000 people located just south of Seattle, suggested to the Renton City Council that it consider the advisability of enacting zoning legislation dealing with adult entertainment uses. No such uses existed in the city at that time. Upon the Mayor's suggestion, the City Council referred the matter to the city's Planning and Development Committee. The Committee held public hearings, reviewed the experiences of Seattle and other cities, and received a report from the City Attorney's Office advising as to developments in other cities. The City Council, meanwhile, adopted Resolution No. 2368, which imposed a moratorium on the licensing of "any business. . . which . . . has as its primary purpose the selling, renting or showing of sexually explicit materials." App. 43. The resolution contained a clause explaining that such businesses "would have a severe impact upon surrounding businesses and residences." Id., at 42.

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An Indiana public indecency statute prohibits, among other things, appearing nude in public. Two adult entertainment establishments and an erotic dancer sued to prevent enforcement of this statute as it applied to nude dancing. The trial court eventually held that nude dancing is not expressive activity protected by the First Amendment and upheld the statute. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that non-obscene nude dancing is entitled to First Amendment protection. When speech and non-speech elements are combined in the same course of conduct (such as burning a draft card), the government can regulate that conduct if (1) the regulation is within the constitutional power of the government, (2) the regulation furthers a substantial governmental interest, (3) the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and (4) the incidental restriction on the speech element of the conduct is not greater than necessary to further the substantial governmental interest. United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968).

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In 1994, the Erie City Council enacted a public indecency ordinance that purports to criminalize public nudity. However, statements by several council members indicate the real intent of the law was to target nude dancing at adult entertainment businesses. PAP's A.M., the owner of an adult business called Kandyland, challenged the law in state court under the First Amendment and the free-speech provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution. After a trial judge granted a permanent injunction against the ordinance, the city appealed. In 1996, the intermediate state appeals court, called the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, reversed, finding the law constitutional based on the U.S. Supreme Court case Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., which upheld a similar Indiana public indecency law. In 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court, finding the law unconstitutional. The state supreme court said that it could find "no clear precedent" from the fragmented Barnes decision. The city contends the state supreme court erred in failing to apply the result of Barnes. Nude dancing is a form of expressive conduct that merits at least some degree of First Amendment protection. Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc.,501 U.S. 560 (1991). Laws that are not designed to suppress freedom of expression but to target harmful secondary effects associated with certain expression are to be considered content-neutral for purposes of First Amendment review. Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50 (1976); Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U.S. 41 (1986).

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In 1977, soon after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50 (1976), the city of Los Angeles' planning commission studies the effects of adult businesses on the city. The study concludes that a proliferation of adult businesses leads to an increase in crime and a decrease in surrounding property values. Based on this study, the city council passes a zoning law that prohibits adult businesses from locating within 1,000 feet of another adult business or 500 feet within a church, school, or public park. Then, in 1983, the city passes an ordinance banning so-called multiple use adult businesses, such as businesses that operate as both adult bookstores and adult arcades. Many years later, two adult businesses Alameda Books and Highland Books that operate as both bookstores and arcades sue in federal court, contending that the 1983 law is unconstitutional. In 1998, a federal district court eventually sides with the adult businesses and prevents the city from enforcing the law. In 2000, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision. The 9th Circuit reasons that the city did not have sufficient evidence that multiple-use adult businesses caused harmful, secondary effects. The panel writes: "The study did not identify any harmful secondary effects resulting from bookstore/arcade combinations as individual business units." The city appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, which grants review on March 5, 2001.

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February 15, 2017

The secondary effects doctrine allows government officials to treat patently content-based laws as content-neutral. The animating logic is that government officials are not suppressing speech because of its content but because of adverse side effects associated with the speech, such as increased crime or decreased property values.

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