Court Fight Over L.A.'s Red Lights

supreme court graphic scotus AP

Red light districts breed crime and filth, lower property values and are general eyesores, civic leaders across the country have claimed in seeking ways to ban concentrations of sex shops and X-rated movie theaters.

For the most part, zoning laws that regulate the location of adult businesses have held up in court, if local officials can show enough basis for keeping such businesses separated. Los Angeles wants to take that thinking a step further and ban what the city says amounts to a red light district under one roof — one stop shopping for sex toys, nude pictures or pornographic peep shows.

The Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday on whether the city's plan violates the constitutional guarantee of free speech. The city lost a lower court ruling and asked the Supreme Court to get involved.

A ruling decision in the case is expected to clarify what justification a local government needs for the multiple-business ban — or whether such a rule cannot be justified.

The city claims that banning what amounts to an adult mini-mall is a natural extension of decades-old red light rules.

"If adult businesses need to be separated from each other, they certainly cannot be located in the same building," lawyers for city Mayor James Hahn argued.

Free speech defenders say the Los Angeles zoning rules are an example of regulation overkill, and that piling zoning restrictions onto adult businesses amounts to nothing more than an attempt to shut them down.

Using a broad definition of speech — here titillating or pornographic books and videos — two Los Angeles adult bookstores and their backers say Los Angeles is wrongly treating sexual content differently from more mainstream offerings.

The bookstore operators, backed by a variety of publishers, First Amendment lawyers and the American Booksellers Association, say it is unfair to bar adult businesses from diversifying.

"The principle underlying this type of ordinance ... would allow the absolute destruction of any adult bookstore business," by classifying the various products the store carries as separate businesses, the stores argued in a court filing.

In Los Angeles, adult-oriented businesses may not operate within 1,000 feet of one another, nor within 500 feet of a church, school or park.

In passing those 1978 rules, the city cited a study charting the harmful effects of concentrations of adult businesses, including higher crime and lower property values.

In 1983, the city refined its rules to prohibit multiple adult businesses from operating in the same building.

The adult bookstores in Tuesday's case began operating after the ban was in force, and never complied with it. They sued in 1995, claiming the zoning rule is an unconstitutional limit on free expression.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that the city did not provide enough evidence of the potential harm from having multiple adult businesses on a single site.

Los ngeles 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.


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