Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U.S. 41 (1986)

2012-08-24 13:57:50

The City of Renton, Washington, using its zoning authority, prohibited adult motion picture theaters from locating within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, church, park, or school. When the ordinance was challenged by Playtime Theatres, the federal district court upheld the constitutionality of the ordinance, relying on Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc (1976) and on United States v. O’Brien (1968). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court based on a different interpretation of the fourpart test in O’Brien. The appellate court concluded Renton improperly relied on studies of other cities to establish the secondary-effects of adult motion picture theaters and thus also failed to establish the substantial government interest required to justify the ordinance. Finally, Renton’s interest appeared to be related to the suppression of protected activity.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal by a vote of seven to two with Rehnquist writing the majority opinion, which Burger, White, Powell, Stevens, and O’Connor joined. Blackmun concurred in the result but did not write separately. Brennan’s dissent was joined by Marshall.

‘‘In our view, ‘‘Rehnquist states,’’ the resolution of this case is largely dictated by our decision in Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc.’’ As in this earlier case, the Renton ordinance was a content neutral time, place, and manner regulation that served a substantial government interest, preventing the secondary effects of adult motion picture theatres in the city’s neighborhoods. The ordinance was not aimed at suppressing free expression but merely the location of the theatres and minimizing their secondaryeffects. Because the ordinance is content-neutral, only intermediate scrutiny rather than strict scrutiny is required. Moreover, because the ordinance is ‘‘narrowly tailored’’ to affect only specific categories of theaters ‘‘shown to produce the unwanted secondary effects,’’ it avoids the flaw of other regulations that were found to be overbroad in Schad v. Borough of Mount Ephraim (1981) and Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (1975).

As for the empirical determination of these effects, which would establish the government’s interest in controlling them, Rehnquist declared that Renton’s reliance on studies from other cities was appropriate. ‘‘The First Amendment does not require a city, before enacting such an ordinance, to conduct new studies ... so long as whatever evidence the city relies upon is reasonably believed to be relevant to the problem the city addresses.’’ In 2002, O’Connor, writing for a plurality in City of Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, Inc., specifically reaffirmed Rehnquist’s view while deploying more generally the same analytical framework as Renton v. Playtime Theatres.

In his dissent, Brennan complained that the Court incorrectly analyzed this case. In particular, the Court sidestepped the issue that Renton’s ordinance rests on the content of the expression being regulated by claiming it addresses only the secondary effects of particular kinds of theaters. While secondary effects may provide a compelling reason to regulate the establishments producing them, it does not follow that Renton’s regulations are content neutral. For instance, the ordinance does not cover other forms of ‘‘adult entertainment,’’ such as bars, massage parlors, or adult bookstores, which indicates Renton’s ordinance is ‘‘under-inclusive,’’ one of the problems the Court noted in Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (1975), but also ‘‘cogent evidence’’ that the ordinance was aimed at the content of films in adult movie theaters.


References and Further Reading

  • Alexander, Donald. The Politics of Pornography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  • Hixson, Richard F. Pornography and the Justices: The Supreme Court and the Intractable Obscenity Problem. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.
  • Mackey, Thomas C. Pornography on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Law, and Documents. Santa Barbara, CA: 4/21/2006, 2002.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • City of Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, Inc., 535 U.S. 425 (2002)
  • Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975)
  • Schad v. Borough of Mount Ephraim, 452 U.S. 61 (1981)
  • United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968)
  • Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50 (1976)