JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) - The Missouri Supreme Court upheld a 2010 law that bars strip club customers from touching performers. The court ruled unanimously that that restriction, and others, do not violate the businesses' freedom of expression.
The law bans full nudity, alcohol, anyone younger than 18 and touching between semi-nude employees and customers. It requires semi-nude employees to remain on a stage at least 18 inches high and at least 6 feet from customers, requires sexually oriented businesses to close between midnight and 6 a.m. and bans closed-door viewing booths for pornographic movies.
The state supreme court found the law constitutional, and said it was not passed in violation of legislative procedures.
Sexually oriented businesses sued the state on constitutional grounds in Cole County Court. Lead plaintiff Michael Ocello claimed that the state had to show that negative effects were more common at such businesses than at other places.
The court rejected that argument, finding that the businesses failed to produce evidence casting doubt on lawmakers' contention that banning things such as nudity and touching promotes public health and safety.
The court cited language in the legislation which stated that the restrictions were meant to promote the health, safety and general welfare of the public by limiting the negative societal effects associated with such businesses, including crime, prostitution, the spread of diseases, drug use and urban blight.
"As such, to the extent that the no-touch, six-foot buffer, alcohol ban and open-booth restrictions reduce patronage at sexually oriented businesses, it is not because the restrictions unduly reduce speech but because they reduce the very types of secondary effects that the government is entitled to and intends to reduce," Judge Laura Denvir Stith wrote for the court. "That this reduction in secondary effects may make these businesses less appealing to some of their former patrons is not the result of the government restricting free speech but simply demonstrates that it was not speech that drew those customers to the establishments."
The plaintiffs also claimed that the Legislature violated the state constitution in passing the bill because a particular committee did not hold a hearing on a lawmaker's challenge to the bill's cost estimate. But the court said the state constitution requires only that the committee to be established and meet, and does not provide a basis to strike down a law due to a procedural error.
The ruling affirms the decision of a Cole County circuit judge, who refused to stop the law from taking effect in August 2010.
The plaintiffs have complied with the law since it took effect, during their appeal.