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Friday, June 17, 2011

Strip-club bill could result in protracted court battle, lawyer warns

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2011 at 6:57 PM

While working on our story on strip club regulations, one of the people I spoke with was Florida-based First Amendment lawyer Larry Walters.

Walters specializes in such cases, along with Internet and media law: I first met him when he was defending Karen Fletcher, a Donora woman who was indicted on obscenity charges for running a website that posted stories depicting sexual abuse of children.

And as it turns out, he's previously challenged legislation very similar to the measures being proposed here in Pittsburgh by Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith. In fact, he says, the industry rarely backs down from a fight, no matter how long it takes.

Walters couldn't predict how a court battle would play out here: He says decisions in the cases he's seen usually run about "50/50." But win or lose, he adds, the battle will almost certainly cost money.

"If the City of Pittsburgh moves ahead with the ordinance," Walters says, "they'd better be ready for an expensive, long-haul battle involving over substantial and significant constitutional issues."

For example:.

Walters himself is currently defending strip clubs in Jacksonville, Florida over regulations enacted in 2005. "It's a real kitchen sink-type ordinance -- they threwin everything you could think of," he says.

As part of a zoning overhaul, the clubs were given five years to relocate, but there was no place inside the city where they could move. Any new location had to be approved by the sheriff, but he declined to issue any approval. In 2010 the city marked 91 spots where the clubs could move and, they ordered them to move immediately.

And while a federal appeals court has recently ruled that the clubs must move, Walters is hauling the city back in court, arguing that owners should get another five years to find a new spot since the new locations were only recently approved.

"These cases don't move quickly," Walters says.

In the 1990s, officials in Fulton County, Georgia enacted restrictive regulations including the sale of alcohol in strip clubs. That law was struck down in 1997 because the appeals court ruled that the county hadn't shown that the club showed any significant secondary effects (a increasing amount of crime, for example). Another law was enacted in 2001 and then in February 2010 the appeals court ruled the county could ban alcohol.

The county won that one, though it took more than a decade.

And the stakes of losing are high, since a club owner who triumphs in court can seek damages. A judge in Seattle, for example, struck down the city's 2005 licensing law for the second time, ruling it unconstitutional. And for the city, the cost of those defeats was steep.

Club owner Bob Davis sued the city of Seattle in 2005, which resulted in the first law being overturned. The judge in that case ruled that the city violated Davis' First Amendment rights; he eventually settled with the city for $500,000. Then in 2008, he filed a similar lawsuit against the town of Bothell, Wa., located northeast of Seattle and received a $350,000 settlement and another $120,000 off the nearby town of Kenmore.

Last year he had Seattle's new law struck down again. He opened his first strip club in four attempts, but the city is once again fighting to close him down.

"I've never lost a case," Davis told a Seattle-based alt-weekly, The Stranger. "And I'm not settling cheap this time."

Kail-Smith appears to be doign what she can to defuse such tensions. At Wednesday's city council standing committee meeting, she said she'd be meeting with some club owners, in hopes of finding  common ground.

Which might be the best thing, since trying to regulate women stripping off their clothes might well end up stripping the city of its cash.

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