Cities use local laws to curb strip clubs

ByJudy Keen, USA TODAY

— -- A growing number of cities and counties are using zoning, licensing regulations and other techniques to discourage strip clubs without running afoul of the businesses' First Amendment rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that cities and states can ban nude dancing and regulate adult-oriented businesses, but can't prohibit them from operating. Federal courts generally protect such businesses unless communities can prove "harmful secondary effects" — increased crime, blight or diminished property values.

"This is a pressing issue all across the country," says David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, a free-speech forum. "City officials are struggling with ways to regulate and limit and even try to prohibit adult entertainment."

Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Association of Club Executives, a strip-club trade association, says legislative efforts to restrict the nation's 3,000 clubs are increasing, especially in rural areas. "We aren't opposed to regulations," she says. "We're opposed to oppressive legislation … designed to put these places out of business."

In January, Jasper County, Mo., commissioners reacted to plans for a nude juice bar by voting to ban total nudity, require employee background checks and HIV tests and keep clubs 2,000 feet from churches, schools and homes.

The rules are meant to be so restrictive that such clubs decide to locate elsewhere, Presiding County Commissioner John Bartosh said. "We can't stop them from opening, but we can make tough restrictions so they can't make any money."

Last week, the building's owner scrapped plans for nude strippers and decided to open a bar and adult video store. Bartosh says he "definitely" believes the new limits forced the change. Lawyer Bill Fleischaker, who represents the owner, says the business will "comply with the ordinance."

Eric Damian Kelly, an urban planning professor at Indiana's Ball State University who advises communities on ways to limit adult businesses, says they often locate in small towns and rural areas with no applicable zoning or other rules.

Elsewhere:

•A federal appeals court last month upheld Kenton County, Ky., rules requiring dancers to stay at least 5 feet from patrons but asked a judge to consider the legality of license fees of $3,000 for clubs and $155 for performers. The ordinance requires that stages be at least 3 feet high and limits conversation with the dancers.

"If these businesses go away, that's fine," County Attorney Garry Edmondson says.

•A Shelby County, Tenn., ordinance that took effect Jan. 1 bans alcohol in strip clubs and requires background checks and licenses for employees. Because a city ordinance allowing alcohol in Memphis clubs had been negated in court, the county rules could take effect there. Club owners are challenging the constitutionality of the rules in court, and the Memphis City Council is considering an ordinance that would permit alcohol sales.

"I don't think the law we adopted will get rid of them, and we never said it would. But if it becomes less attractive to do business here … maybe there will be fewer of these clubs," County Commissioner Mike Ritz says.

•In January, the Bourbonnais, Ill., village board voted to allow strip clubs only in areas zoned for industrial use, prohibit them from having liquor licenses and keep them 1,000 feet from churches and schools. Mayor Robert Latham says his "personal wish" is to keep them out of town or put them where they "do the least amount of damage."

Jeffrey Douglas, a lawyer and board chairman of the Free Speech Coalition, an adult-entertainment trade group, says efforts to restrict such businesses often are driven by lawyers who promise communities they can help write limits that will stand up in court. The bottom line, he says: "Cities may not place such restrictions on the placement or operation of the business that makes it, in essence, a ban."

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