- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001


If cities can ban adult movie theaters, massage parlors and the like from operating in the same neighborhood, they should also be able to stop such businesses from offering what amounts to a red light district under one roof, a lawyer argued to the Supreme Court on yesterday.

The court is considering whether it violates the constitutional guarantee of free speech to prevent adult businesses from diversifying, as a combination bookstore and video arcade did in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles and other cities ban red light districts under the premise they are breeding grounds for crime and filth, devastate neighborhoods and lower property values. The same thing is true of a single business that sells all manner of sex-related items or services, and draws the same crowd that a whole neighborhood of similar businesses might attract, Los Angeles Deputy Attorney Michael Klekner argued.

"It makes no difference if they are side by side or in the same building," Mr. Klekner said.

The city lost a lower court ruling and asked the Supreme Court to get involved.

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.

A ruling in the case is expected to clarify what justification a local government needs for further restrictions like the Los Angeles ban, or whether such a rule cannot be justified.

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 an attempt to shut them down.

"The problem with the city's novel and rather adventurous approach is that the next step, as inevitably as night follows the day, is to parse the businesses into smaller and smaller parts," to the point that they are not economically viable, lawyer John Weston argued on behalf of two city bookstores.

Using a broad definition of speech here titillating or pornographic books and videos the 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 yesterday's case began operating after the ban was in force, and always offered a variety of products. They sued in 1995, claiming the zoning rule is an unconstitutional limit on free expression.

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