NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A federal judge temporarily blocked Louisiana from enforcing a law that would keep strippers under the age of 21 from dancing nude in the state.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier issued the injunction Wednesday and said it will stay in effect until the court can conclusively determine whether the law withstands constitutional scrutiny.
Erotic dancing has a long history as protected free speech under the First Amendment.
Barbier wrote in his 41-page ruling that “there is little doubt” that the law “sweeps up a fair amount of constitutionally protected speech.”
The regulation, officially Act No. 395, contains standard restrictions on nudity and dancers’ distance from customers, the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control says.
But opponents to the bill – three dancers under the age of 21, but above the age of 18, Jane Does I, II, and III object to the requirement that exotic dancers must be 21 or older, saying they would be hard-pressed to find legal work that would pay them as much as they can earn in nightclubs, and also that the law would infringe on their freedom of expression.
They say the law, Act No. 395, poses an unconstitutional restraint on speech and expression and commerce and is discriminatory because the legislature made it clear that “Act No. 395 was enacted to regulate and ‘protect’ women aged 18, 19, and 20” – but not young men.
Barbier’s ruling, as well as the federal lawsuit filed in September, includes ample citations from floor debate, which its sponsor, state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R- Calcasieu, called “strictly an anti-human trafficking bill.”
The regulation took effect on Aug. 1, when the state began enforcing it statewide – except in New Orleans. Judge Barbier’s ruling put it on hold — for now.
In a statement, Ernest Legier, chief of staff for the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control said Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard “does not believe the law to be unconstitutionally overbroad or vague,” as the plaintiffs contend.
But Barbier said “It is not the court’s role to rely on the interpretation of an enforcement agency when determining whether the statute is constitutional.”
At this stage in litigation, the judge wrote, “Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on their vagueness challenge.”
Although he was careful not to prejudge the merits of the case, Barbier made note of the plaintiffs’ argument “that the Louisiana legislature’s true animating forces behind Act No. 395 were paternalistic and moralistic concerns about how women under the age of 21 should live, not the goal of reducing the secondary effect of human trafficking.”
To illustrate, the plaintiffs pointed to statements made by several lawmakers during the debate over the bill, including those of state Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, who said “We need to do something to get these people to recognize that there’s another way of living, you know. I wish there was something we could do to make [erotic dancers] go to church or something.”
Another lawmaker, Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, introduced an amendment that would have prohibited strippers from working if they were older than 28 or weighed more than 160 lbs.
Havard withdrew his amendment after three women legislators objected to his comments.
“Looking out over this body [the House of Representatives], I’ve never been more repulsed to be part of it,” said Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner. “I can’t even believe the behavior in here. I think we need to call an end to this. I hear derogatory comments about women in this place regularly, I hear and see women get treated differently than men. … That was utterly disrespectful and disgusting.
Havard told Courthouse News in an interview following the incident that he was “trying to use satire” in making the comments.
He said his amendment was meant to be so over the top it would stop Act 395 in its tracks, that it was an attempt to “shed some light on what I thought was a terrible piece of legislation.”
“They claim this is going to shut down on human trafficking,” Havard said at the time. “If human trafficking is the issue … then let’s ask the strippers ‘Are you of age?’ ‘Is anyone forcing you to do this?’”