The Gentleman’s Playground in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Source: Yelp

This post was authored by Otten Johnson summer associate Lindsay Lyda.  Lindsay is a rising third-year law student at the University of Colorado Law School.

A few weeks ago, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s summary judgment order upholding Rocky Mount, North Carolina’s sexually-oriented business regulations against a First Amendment challenge by an exotic dance club known as “The Gentlemen’s Playground.”  As this is a professional blog, we will refrain from further commentary on the combination of the parties’ names, but invite our readers to conjure up whatever creative taglines come to mind.

American Entertainers has operated the club in Rocky Mount since 2002.  The city requires that all sexually oriented businesses obtain a license.  After discovering that The Gentlemen’s Playground was not licensed, the city sought to enforce its ordinance against the owner.  In response, American Entertainers challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  The district court granted summary judgment for the city.  On appeal the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part.

American Entertainers asserted that the definition of “sexually oriented business” in the ordinance was overbroad, so as to encompass “conventional, mainstream arts and entertainment.”  The Fourth Circuit rejected the claim and found that the ordinance was adopted for a purpose unrelated to suppression of expression, i.e. to offset the deleterious consequences, like lower property values and increased rate of crime, that accompany exotic dance clubs.  The court further found that the licensing requirement materially advanced the city’s substantial interest.  According to the court, the licensing fee was an acceptable way for the city to counteract some of the administrative and enforcement burdens that exotic dance clubs bring to a city.  The court also found that the ordinance was narrowly tailored to this important interest, noting that American Entertainers offered no evidence that the license itself restricted free speech.

Additionally, American Entertainers challenged two of the license-denial provisions, including one that allowed the city’s police chief to deny a license if the business would not comply with “all applicable laws,” and another that prohibited any applicant under twenty one years old from obtaining a license to operate a sexually oriented business.  The appeals court held that the provision allowing denial for violation of applicable laws was an unconstitutional prior restraint.  It failed to limit the phrase “applicable laws” and was susceptible to the chief of police creating trivial reasons to deny a license.  Ultimately, the court remanded this issue to the district court to determine whether and to what extent this provision is severable from the rest of the ordinance.

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the age restriction infringed upon equal protection and the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.  However, because the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not recognize age as a suspect class, the age restriction needs only to be rationally related to the city’s interest.  The court had no difficulty reasoning that because alcohol is typically served at exotic dance venues, the age restriction was rationally related to the city’s interest in ensuring the business owners of sexually oriented businesses are of legal drinking age.  Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s denial of the Equal Protection challenge.

American Entertainers, L.L.C. v. City of Rocky Mount, 888 F.3d 707 (4th Cir. 2018).

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Photo of Brian J. Connolly Brian J. Connolly

Brian Connolly represents public- and private-sector clients in matters relating to zoning, planning, development entitlements and other complex regulatory issues.  Brian’s practice encompasses a broad range of land use matters including zoning compliance, rezonings and other regulatory amendments, planned-unit developments, development agreements, private covenants and restrictions, land use and zoning litigation, initiatives and referenda associated with land use approvals, and real estate transactions.  Brian additionally specializes in the First Amendment and land use issues associated with outdoor sign and advertising regulation, and fair housing matters in local planning and zoning.