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High court overturns ruling on L.A. 'sex superstores'

By The Associated Press

05.13.02

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WASHINGTON — Evidence of neighborhood crime and blight may have been strong enough to justify banning more than one sex-related business from operating under the same roof in Los Angeles, and a lower court was wrong to invalidate the ban, the Supreme Court ruled today.

Four justices found the city had done enough to bolster its argument that what it called "sex superstores" have negative side effects on the surrounding neighborhood and should be banned. The four include the court's three most conservative members, joined by swing voter Sandra Day O'Connor.

"The city of Los Angeles may reasonably rely on a study it conducted some years before enacting the present version of (the law) to demonstrate that its ban on multiple-use adult establishments serves its interest in reducing crime," O'Connor wrote for herself, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy would not go that far. Kennedy, also a swing voter, found only that the city may have had sufficient evidence for its ban, but the lower court should not have ruled without more review.

Because of Kennedy's ambivalence, there is not a five-member majority fully endorsing the ban. Nonetheless, the court reversed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling, and sent the case, City of Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, back for further study or a full trial.

Dissenting were the court's more liberal justices: John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

The ruling means that the city can continue to defend the ban against challenges from adult businesses that claim the law is an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

The Supreme Court has previously said that cities may fight the crime, filth and economic decline associated with traditional red light districts though zoning regulations, such as forcing sex-related businesses to locate far away from one another.

Los Angeles did just that in 1978, with a local law requiring adult establishments to be at least 1,000 feet away from other such businesses and 500 feet away from any school, religious institution or public park.

The law was based on a 1977 study that said concentrating adult businesses in a particular area led to increased crime, lower property values and other negative effects.

The city quickly discovered what its lawyers call a loophole. One X-rated movie theater could add products and services to become a "sex superstore," the city said.

So the city took what it called the logical next step and in 1983 banned multiple adult businesses from operating on the same site. The ban was ignored in some cases, including by two adult bookstores that added video viewing booths in the early 1990s.

After city inspectors discovered the violations, the stores sued, claiming the ban is a violation of the constitutional guarantee of free speech and unjustifiably treats sexual content more harshly than more mainstream fare.

A federal judge ruled for the two businesses in 1998, and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Los Angeles has a "substantial government interest" in reducing crime in its neighborhoods, but it did not provide enough evidence that the restriction would serve that goal, the appeals court said.

The city then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Update

Supreme Court provides mixed day for First Amendment
Analysis Justices produce pair of messy, mix-and-match rulings that give little guidance to lower courts, much less those directly affected.  05.15.02

Previous

Secondary-effects argument takes center stage before high court
Analysis Business owners contend Los Angeles should have conducted studies on 'multiple use' adult establishments before outlawing them.  12.05.01

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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