Massachusetts court strikes down ordinance limiting permits for adult businesses

By Laura Tucker

A U.S. District Court in Mendon, Mass., granted summary judgment in favor of Showtime Entertainment, allowing the company a special permit to open a live nude dancing venue and invalidating an ordinance that gave the zoning board too broad of authority to deny permits to similar businesses.

In its order, the court reasoned that even if the establishment would have an adverse secondary effect on the community, the court is still “bound by long-standing principles of constitutional law that narrowly constrain” the regulation of activities that are protected by the First Amendment.

The Mendon city ordinance at issue in the case prohibited the operation of an adult entertainment venue absent a special permit from the Mendon zoning board. The ordinance stated that the board “may” issue a special permit for adult businesses, provided that the business did not fall under certain categories.

The board granted Showtime’s application, but determined that the venue would increase the risk of crime in the town and required that Showtime meet certain conditions prior to operation—notably that it limit its hours of operation from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. and that it provide various parking, security, safety, and noise reduction measures, as well as prohibiting the venue to sell alcohol.

According to the adverse secondary effects doctrine, government officials may limit adult businesses if they are concerned that the business will have negative secondary effects associated with them—higher crime, for example. The doctrine has sometimes been broadly applied by courts, and many First Amendment advocates are critical of its implications.

Section 5.01(f) governs when the board should not grant a special permit for adult businesses, but, according to Showtime, whose reasoning the court adopted, it did not explicitly state when a permit should be granted because it used the word “may” instead of a more definite “must.” The court analogized to a similar Massachusetts case in which the court invalidated an earlier version of the statute for virtually the same reason. Thus, the court held, the ordinance allowed for broad authority in denying such permits, in violation of the First Amendment.

The town argued, however, that the statute did, in fact, state when a special permit could be granted: when the conditions under which the permit should not be granted were absent. The court rejected this reasoning, stating that the statute did not affirmatively state under what circumstances an adult entertainment venue could operate. Furthermore, the court said the town offered no reason to show that the word “may” should be construed as “must.”

The court’s reasoning included a good reliance on authority from Massachusetts cases, and provides a great upholding of the First Amendment, notwithstanding the town’s reliance on the secondary effects doctrine. Even though the court clearly shows its disapproval for such businesses in the second paragraph of the opinion (“the Court is entirely sympathetic to the concerns of the people of Mendon, as reflected in the actions of their public officials, that such an establishment is likely to have a deleterious effect on the community in a variety of ways”), it still did the right thing by invalidating the ordinance.

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