Warren, Michigan adult entertainment restrictions pass constitutional muster

by Melanie Thwing

Big Dipper Entm’t, L.L.C. v. City of Warren

(U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit, April 13 2011)

In 2006 the City of Warren, Michigan amended the city code to restrict the location of adult businesses. This was in an attempt to “halt property value deterioration,” “eliminate the causes of deterioration,” and “eliminate blight.” Before enacting this ordinance the City received and reviewed 49 studies and reports about secondary effects of adult businesses.

The City published a notice of intent to amend Section 14.01 of the City code, which again was to “prohibit the location of sexually oriented businesses within the boundaries of the Warren Downtown Development Authority.” A temporary ban on all new permits was enacted during the consideration of the proposed amendment.

Big Dipper Entertainment filed a petition to operate a topless bar one day prior to the ban going into effect. The city code specifies that the application must be acted upon within twenty days. The city clerk denied the application after twenty-four. Two years later in 2008 Big Dipper filed this U.S.C. § 1983 action in federal district court, arguing that Section 14.01 of the Warren City Code violates the First Amendment, and that the untimely rejection of the application acted as a prior restraint on protected expression. The district court granted summary judgment for the City and Big Dipper appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

Big dipper first argued that § 14.01 was an unconstitutional restriction on speech, and that the main purpose of § 14.01 was not to limit secondary effects but to prevent new adult businesses from opening. The Sixth Circuit noted that “the speech at issue here was that conveyed by a topless bar” and it is common sense to say that in a democracy “society’s interest in protecting this type of expression is of a wholly different, and lesser magnitude than the interest in untrammeled political debate.”  To satisfy its burden, the city need only show that its “predominate concerns were with the secondary effects” of adult businesses.  The city met this burden through the evidence provided in the collection of studies and reflected in the city council meeting minutes.

Also Big Dipper argued that the district court disregarded their expert’s analysis that showed that § 14.01 restricted locations to only ten potential sights from thirty-nine. The Sixth Circuit noted that Big Dipper did not raise this issue in district court, and that the burden to create a genuine issue of material fact falls to Big Dipper not the district court. Only two applications for adult businesses were filed in the five years leading up to the litigation. Even a reduction from thirty-nine potential sites to ten, as would be the result of § 14.01 still supplies almost thirteen times more sites than the five-year demand. This was “more than ample for constitutional purposes.” The decision of the district court was affirmed.

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