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Justices turn down look at Voyeur Dorm dispute

By The Associated Press

02.27.02

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WASHINGTON — The 30 Internet cameras trained on five young women in a Florida house can keep rolling.

The Supreme Court refused on Feb. 25 to consider an appeal from city officials in Tampa, who want to shut down Voyeurdorm.com.

The softcore Webcast chronicles the daily activities of young housemates, clothed and unclothed. Subscribers pay $39.95 a month for 24-hour viewing. Cameras are installed throughout the house, including bedrooms and showers.

Tampa claims the house is an adult business that cannot operate in a residential neighborhood under city zoning laws. The city tried to close the business down in 1999.

"This is a major victory not just for people involved in Web sites dealing with sexual imagery, but for anybody who uses the Internet to conduct business," Voyeur Dorm attorneys Luke Lirot and Mark Dolan said in a statement.

"Over the long term, it will protect the rights of far more people than those of us who were before the court on this particular case."

The city wasn't seeking to censor Voyeur Dorm's content, Assistant City Attorney Jerry Gewirtz told The Tampa Tribune for a story published yesterday. "The only issue has been one of location," he said.

The newspaper also quoted Mayor Dick Greco: "The city pursued [the case] so these things wouldn't start popping up in people's neighborhoods. We did the best we could, so I guess we'll just have to live with it."

At issue for the court was whether zoning laws written with adult movie theaters or bookstores in mind can be used to regulate a business no patrons physically visit.

The court has upheld zoning restrictions on legitimate adult businesses in the past, so long as the restrictions only govern where the business operates.

Cities can try to contain the growth of red light districts through zoning, for example, and can restrict adult businesses to certain commercial areas.

Material that is indecent but not obscene deserves protection under the First Amendment, the court has ruled.

Tampa won the first round in federal court, when a judge agreed that the Voyeur Dorm house violated city zoning laws. The Webcasts continued while the operators appealed to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled last year that local zoning laws don't apply to "virtual space" on the Internet.

The Webcasts continued while Tampa appealed to the Supreme Court.

The city argued that it should be able to protect the quality and safety of residential neighborhoods, and that it had the weight of previous Supreme Court decisions on its side.

"The city is not regulating the content of speech or any other form of communication that is being disseminated over the Internet," city lawyers wrote.

Lawyers for the Web site operator and one of the actresses claimed the city is trying to do just that.

"It is clear that any application of municipal zoning concepts to the 'virtual reality' of the Internet would result in expanding restrictions of free speech beyond and constitutional limit," the site's lawyers wrote.

The city's reasoning would mean "application of legislation adopted in the context of land use to a form of communication never even dreamed of when the original legislation was adopted."

The case is Tampa v. Voyeur Dorm.

Previous

Voyeur Dorm isn't subject to city's zoning law
11th Circuit panel didnít, however, address constitutional issue of using city codes to control adult entertainment on the Internet.  09.25.01

Related

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

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