City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc.

475 U.S. 41 (1986)

Facts

Respondents challenged a zoning ordinance enacted by the city of Renton, WA that prohibited adult motion picture theaters from locating within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, park, or school.  Respondents owned two theaters in downtown Renton within the proscribed area that they intended to use to exhibit adult films.

Procedural History

The district court denied appellees request for a declaratory judgment that the ordinance violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments and permanent injunction against its enforcement.  The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for reconsideration.

Issue

Did the city’s ordinance banning adult theaters within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, park, or school violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech?

Holding / Rule

(Rehnquist) No.  Reversed.  The zoning ordinance was a content-neutral time, place, and manner regulation of speech.  Such restrictions are acceptable as long as they serve a substantial governmental interest and allow for reasonable alternative avenues of communication.

Reasoning

The zoning ordinance was not aimed at the content of the films shown at adult theaters but rather with the secondary effects of such theaters on the surrounding community.  It was not intended to suppress free expression, but to prevent crime, protect the city’s retail trade, maintain property values, and generally protect and preserve the city’s quality of life and commercial districts by limiting where such theaters could be located.  Thus, the applicable standard of review was that applied to content-neutral time, place, and manner regulations.  The city was entitled to rely on evidence of problems other cities with adult theaters, and the five percent of the city’s land left open by the ordinance provided a reasonable alternative, regardless of whether much of that land was already occupied or not for sale.

Brennan dissented, arguing that the ordinance’s restrictions on the location of the theaters was based exclusively on the content of the films shown there and therefore were not content-neutral.

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