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N. Kentucky Braces for Strip Club Lawsuits

Kentucky- When local governments across the country push strip clubs around, those clubs have been known to push back — and in some cases win big.

Courts have awarded judgments in excess of $1 million to clubs from Louisville to Anaheim, Calif., after zoning and other regulatory ordinances were ruled unconstitutional.

Some First Amendment experts — many of whom have made fortunes from challenging sexually oriented business laws around the country — say Northern Kentucky could be headed down the same road with its new ordinance. Kenton County Attorney Garry Edmondson doesn’t think so.

“We’re in great shape,” said Edmondson, who noted that most ordinances that have received unfavorable court rulings did so because they didn’t clearly outline the methods for applying for sexually oriented business licenses.

“Every part of this ordinance has drawn on cases across the country that have been upheld in the courts. — It has been well-researched.”

The owners of seven clubs in Northern Kentucky intend to fight the ordinance, which Campbell County also is expected to adopt in the next month.

Club owners originally said the lawsuit was to be filed in federal court by H. Louis Sirkin by Friday, but Jennifer Kinsley, an associate at Sirkin’s Cincinnati firm who is helping with the case, said the suit would now be filed sometime before Oct. 30, when the ordinance goes into effect.

Sirkin was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Across the country, many municipalities and other local governments have paid large settlements and judgments in recent years. Among them:

• Anaheim, Calif., in a 1999 case agreed to a $2 million settlement with Bill Gammoh after fighting to keep him from opening a club. The state’s court of appeals ruled the zoning unconstitutional.

• Louisville has paid in excess of $144,573.64 to the Déjà Vu chain after the city’s new ordinance was ruled unconstitutional.

• Hammond, Ind., has so far paid $219,242.50 in court costs to defend an ordinance that has since been ruled unenforceable.

Edmondson said his office and taxpayers are ready to fight against such clubs because in the long run it will save the community money by decreasing crime and keeping property values from plummeting.

In recent years governments have moved away from the difficult process of prosecuting adult businesses under obscenity charges and moved toward controlling their activities through zoning and regulations.

Bradley J. Shafer, a lawyer based in Lansing, Mich., who is one of the country’s top First Amendment lawyers, has been awarded more than $1 million in attorney fees and costs from municipalities that enacted aggressive laws controlling sexually oriented businesses.

Shafer has argued successfully against laws involving hours of operation, nudity prohibitions and buffer zones between dancers and patrons at various clubs. Those happen to be a few of the new rules in a new sexually oriented business ordinance adopted last week by the Kenton County Fiscal Court.

“You cannot mandate the distance between two parties, — ” Shafer said. “People have the right to be engaged with others when they are expressing themselves.”

Over the years, Shafer said he has seen adult business zoned onto an airport runway, into the Pacific Ocean, and even the inside of a mayor’s house. All such zones were overturned in court.

Tampa-based Luke Charles Lirot, another prominent First Amendment lawyer who has represented strip clubs and adult businesses across the country, said municipalities in Florida also seem to have a favorite place to zone sexually oriented business: the Everglades.

Lirot said going to such extremes shows that governments are not trying to zone businesses, but rather trying to get rid of them. In those cases, it is almost certain the legislating government body will lose in Constitutional grounds if the matter goes to court.

“If the club tries to sell you drugs, arrest them. If they are offering prostitution, arrest them,” Lirot said. “There is no reason these clubs should be treated differently just because they provide adult entertainment.”

Many of the court battles have stemmed from the heavily argued assertion — supported by Edmonsdon — that strip clubs and other sexually oriented business have negative secondary effects, such as decreasing surrounding property values and increased crime. Several studies on the claim have produced contradictory results, and no real consensus exists among experts.

Dwight H. Merriam, a partner in the Hartford, Conn., law office of Robinson & Cole and past president of the American Institute of Certified Planners, has helped many communities deal with that very topic and is a frequent lecturer on the subject. He says the answer to that debate lies where it usually does — in the middle.

“It all depends with how the establishment is presented,” Merriam said. “I have seen clubs in the middle of Beverly Hills, and no one even knew it was there, so it didn’t affect anything. I have seen other instances where it drove people away.”

At clubs in Covington and Newport, dancers take turns on the stage, mingling in between with the customers, from whom they earn tips. Laws already on the books in Newport and Covington no longer permit dancers to go nude or even topless, so dancers simply wear two bathing suits, one more revealing than the next.

A majority of the customers are men, but a few women can be found. Seedy-looking characters are few and far between. Customers’ attire ranges from business suits to T-shirts and baseball caps.

Customers tip dancers by buying drinks, which range from $10 to $20 and even higher. The dancers are then obliged to talk to the customers for a specified amount of time based on the amount of the drink. It is this aspect of the Northern Kentucky clubs that Edmondson said is leading to problems with prostitution and causing one of the biggest controversies over the new ordinance.

Kenton County’s new ordinance requires dancers who appear on stage not to enter areas open to customers, which club owners and dancers say would eliminate a large portion of their tips. Edmondson calls this aspect the “most groundbreaking” part of the ordinance, citing an Austin, Texas, study that showed a connection between that behavior and prostitution.

The Kenton County Attorney’s office last year arrested and charged four dancers working at Liberty’s Show Lounge with prostitution. Three of the women have been convicted; the other had her sentenced reduced for her cooperation against the three.

The club remains open, but Edmondson is working to have it closed, saying the establishment is a public nuisance.

Liberty’s is not one of the clubs participating in the lawsuit against the Kenton County’s new sexually oriented business ordinance.

 

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