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Federal appeals court to weigh Florida exotic dancer age restriction

CBS News Live
CBS News Miami Live

TALLAHASSEE - After Gov. Ron DeSantis last week signed a bill that will prevent strippers under age 21 from performing in adult entertainment establishments across Florida, a federal appeals court is preparing to take up a constitutional challenge to a similar restriction passed in Jacksonville.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments June 6 in Jacksonville about whether a city ordinance barring dancers under 21 in adult establishments violates First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan last year upheld the age restriction, which the city contends is designed to prevent human trafficking. Backers of the bill that DeSantis signed last week also have said it is aimed at curbing trafficking.

But attorneys for club owners and dancers who challenged the Jacksonville ordinance wrote in an appeals court brief last year that the "record shows that there had never been an arrest for human trafficking at an adult club in Jacksonville."

"In a misguided effort to crack down on human trafficking, the city of Jacksonville has imposed a unique ban which targets only speech rights without establishing any real nexus to the hypothesized crime; it restricts only the speaker and not the offender," the brief said. "The focus on exotic dancer performers - to the exclusion of all other young adults who may be vulnerable to trafficking - is particularly noteworthy given the undisputed fact that there has never been an arrest for human trafficking in an adult entertainment establishment in Jacksonville."

Lawyers for the city, however, disputed that the ordinance violates First Amendment rights, saying it "does not eliminate speech and is not censorship of expression; it is aimed at reducing horrific crimes which the city has demonstrated that occur in adult establishments."

"The city appropriately decided that erotic dancers who dance for money in private strip clubs should be at least 21 years old," the city's lawyers wrote in an August brief. "The city based this decision, not on a desire to suppress expression (dancing), but on a reasonable desire to protect younger, more vulnerable dancers from being sex trafficked."

The Legislature in March passed the statewide age restriction in a bill (HB 7063) that addressed a series of human-trafficking issues. The bill, which will take effect July 1, cited rulings in the Jacksonville case and in lawsuits about age restrictions in Louisiana and Texas.

Under the Florida law, people under age 21 will not be able to work in adult-entertainment establishments. Employing or allowing people under 21 to perform nude in the establishments could lead to second-degree felony charges.

As he signed the bill last week during an appearance at a Coral Gables church, DeSantis said the bill will protect "very vulnerable individuals that are being exploited in our state."

The Jacksonville case stems from an ordinance passed in 2022, after legal battles about earlier restrictions. Clubs that filed the challenge operate "bikini bars," where scantily clad women dance and alcohol is served, and a "juice" bar, which has nude performers but not alcohol, according to the appeals-court brief filed in June 2023 by their attorneys.

The brief said as many as 100 performers were affected by the city's age restriction.

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