Supreme Court reviews law on sexual businesses

Critics of a Missouri law imposing restrictions on strip clubs, adult video stores and other adult businesses brought their legal challenge Wednesday to the state Supreme Court.

Opponents of the law that took effect last August contend the measure violates free expression rights. They also say lawmakers did not follow proper procedures when approving the legislation because a hearing was never held about its estimated cost despite such a request from a lawmaker.

The Missouri law requires sexually oriented businesses to close by midnight and bans full nudity, alcohol, minors and touching between semi-nude employees and customers. To ensure a hands-off policy, it mandates that semi-nude employees remain on a stage at least 6 feet from patrons.

Previously, a trial court in the Capitol’s home of Cole County denied a request for a temporary restraining order against the law and later upheld the law’s restrictions.

The legislation was defended Wednesday before the state high court by Ronald Holliger, the general counsel for the Missouri attorney general’s office and by Chattanooga, Tenn.-based attorney Scott Bergthold, who argued that the law’s restrictions do not violate freedom of expression rights.

Supporters of the law contend its regulations are aimed at combating negative side effects from sexually-oriented businesses, including property crime, prostitution, the potential for spreading disease, drug use and public indecency. They said the Legislature relied upon previous court rulings, land use studies, crime and health impact reports, anecdotal evidence and expert witness testimony in approving the legislation and that the restrictions are not based on content.

“Nothing in the statute controls the content of any free speech — there is no regulation whatsoever of any book or video,” the attorneys said in a written argument. “Nothing in the statute censors any pornography or controls what sex scenes businesses may disseminate or individuals may view.”

Holliger argued the state constitution does not require a hearing about the cost estimate of legislation.

The legal challenge to the restrictions on sexual businesses was filed by a group that includes several people and businesses involved in the adult entertainment industry. Attorney J. Michael Murray said during arguments before the Supreme Court that the law imposes “rigorous restrictions” on constitutionally protected expression.

“It has already proven devastating to the adult entertainment industry in Missouri, resulting in large-scale job losses, enormous loss of revenues, taxes, indeed the outright closure of several outlets for this expression that were previously thriving businesses and the threat that others will soon close, resulting in a massive reduction in the quantity and availability of constitutionally protected expression,” Murray said.

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