Missouri Supreme Court upholds tough rules for adult businesses

Missouri’s tough restrictions on adult entertainment will soon spread across the country, anti-pornography activists predicted Tuesday, now that the state’s Supreme Court has decided the stronger rules are constitutional.

“Missouri has set the standard for the nation,” said Phillip Cosby, director of the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri. “The gold standard.”

Former state Sen. Matt Bartle, the Republican who led the fight for the law, agreed and said he hoped “other states might decide to wade into these waters.”

But the court’s unanimous confirmation of the adult business statute — which bans nude dancing and broadly limits other kinds of adult entertainment — shocked some adult club owners in Missouri, who have fought the restrictions in the legislature and the courts for almost two years.

“We’ve tried to imagine a million different scenarios of how we can operate with this law,” said Joe Spinello, owner of the Shady Lady in Kansas City. “But it’s awfully restrictive.”

At least one local adult entertainment venue closed after the rules went into effect. Others have stayed open, hoping the court would throw out the law and allow a resumption of nude and semi-nude exhibitions.

Some club owners claimed their attendance dropped by 75 percent or more when they tried to meet the new restrictions by covering their dancers, although they now say some customers have started to return.

The clubs could ask the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, to take up the issue. Dick Bryant, an attorney for club owners and employees who challenged the law, said he was considering such an appeal — although earlier this year he said such an effort might prove futile.

“We believe the decision is a major erosion of rights of free expression afforded under the constitutions of Missouri and the United States,” Bryant said in an email Tuesday to The Associated Press.

For now, in Missouri:

Nude dancing is prohibited. “Sexually oriented businesses” — bookstores, clubs and theaters offering semi-nude entertainment — must close between midnight and 6 a.m. “Semi-nude” is defined as showing the female breast below the areola, or naked buttocks, male or female. Alcohol sales are prohibited in sexually oriented businesses. Dancers must perform on elevated stages at a distance from customers. Touching is prohibited. Movie viewing in closed booths is prohibited.

Club owners challenged the rules before they went into effect in August 2010, claiming the regulations violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

But Judge Laura Denvir Stith, writing for the court, said the rules are reasonably related to the state’s desire to protect public health and safety.

“The act does not ban sexually oriented businesses of any type,” the court said in its 41-page ruling. “Rather, it seeks to reduce negative secondary effects associated with such businesses, including detrimental health and sanitary conditions, prostitution and drug-related crimes both inside and outside these locations, as well as deterioration of the surrounding neighborhoods.”

The court said the law does not violate anyone’s free speech rights. And it also said lawmakers did not need a fiscal note on the law’s potential financial impact before it acted, as the club owners had claimed in their arguments to the court.

Entertainers told the court in several affidavits that the new law had cost them thousands of dollars in lost tips. Many said they had moved to Kansas, where there are fewer restrictions.

But Cosby said the Missouri ruling would help the effort to impose similar limits in Kansas when that state’s legislature convenes next year.

While the ruling clarifies the constitutionality of the Missouri’s restrictions, it is not clear what impact it will have on authorities who will have to enforce it.

An investigation by The Kansas City Star last May showed at least two local clubs — Bazooka’s and Temptations — featured dancers with what appeared to be exposed breasts. Under the law those clubs should have closed at midnight.

Instead, the clubs remained open. An attorney for the clubs said the dancers actually used a thin opaque covering for their breasts, bringing them into technical compliance with the law.

The covering, however, was not visible to Star reporters.

A third club, The Shady Lady, featured dancers who performed in small bathing suits, in apparent compliance with the law.

The Missouri statute does not say which law enforcement agency is primarily responsible for enforcing the restrictions. Officials with the Kansas City Police Department, the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, the Jackson County sheriff’s department and Kansas City Regulated Industries have all said they will play some role in making sure the rules are followed, but the lead agency hasn’t been determined.

The Kansas City Police Department did not return a call seeking comment.

But Bartle said the decision should mean better enforcement quickly.

“That legal cloud is now gone,” he said. “I would hope and anticipate a little more vigorous enforcement now.”

The Kansas City Council may soon be asked to rewrite its own adult ordinances to more closely match the state statute.

Spinello said his establishment might be able to remain open because he owes no money on the property and can sell liquor because his dancers wear bikinis and aren’t considered semi-nude.

Other clubs, though, might face bigger hurdles to staying in business: “The other guys with bigger rents are going to have a really tough time,” he said.