City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc.


No. 84-1360 Argued: November 12, 1985 --- Decided: February 25, 1986
JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves a constitutional challenge to a zoning ordinance, enacted by appellant city of Renton, Washington, that prohibits adult motion picture theaters from locating within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, park, or school. Appellees, Playtime Theatres, Inc., and Sea-First Properties, Inc., filed an action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington seeking a declaratory judgment that the Renton ordinance violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and a permanent injunction against its enforcement. The District Court ruled in favor of Renton and denied the permanent injunction, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for reconsideration. 748 F.2d 527 (1984). We noted probable jurisdiction, 471 U.S. 1013 (1985), and now reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit. [n1] [p44]

In May 1980, the Mayor of Renton, a city of approximately 32,000 people located just south of Seattle, suggested to the Renton City Council that it consider the advisability of enacting zoning legislation dealing with adult entertainment uses. No such uses existed in the city at that time. Upon the Mayor's suggestion, the City Council referred the matter to the city's Planning and Development Committee. The Committee held public hearings, reviewed the experiences of Seattle and other cities, and received a report from the City Attorney's Office advising as to developments in other cities. The City Council, meanwhile, adopted Resolution No. 2368, which imposed a moratorium on the licensing of "any business . . . which . . . has as its primary purpose the selling, renting or showing of sexually explicit materials." App. 43. The resolution contained a clause explaining that such businesses "would have a severe impact upon surrounding businesses and residences." Id. at 42.

In April, 1981, acting on the basis of the Planning and Development Committee's recommendation, the City Council enacted Ordinance No. 3626. The ordinance prohibited any "adult motion picture theater" from locating within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, or park, and within one mile of any school. App. to Juris. Statement 79a. The term "adult motion picture theater" was defined as

[a]n enclosed building used for presenting motion picture films, video cassettes, cable television, or any other such visual media, distinguished or characteri[zed] by an emphasis on matter depicting, describing or relating to "specified sexual activities" or "specified anatomical areas" . . . for observation by patrons therein.

Id. at 78a. [p45]

In early 1982, respondents acquired two existing theaters in downtown Renton, with the intention of using them to exhibit feature-length adult films. The theaters were located within the area proscribed by Ordinance No. 3526. At about the same time, respondents filed the previously mentioned lawsuit challenging the ordinance on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. While the federal action was pending, the City Council amended the ordinance in several respects, adding a statement of reasons for its enactment and reducing the minimum distance from any school to 1,000 feet.

In November, 1982, the Federal Magistrate to whom respondents' action had been referred recommended the entry of a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Renton ordinance and the denial of Renton's motions to dismiss and for summary judgment. The District Court adopted the Magistrate's recommendations and entered the preliminary injunction, and respondents began showing adult films at their two theaters in Renton. Shortly thereafter, the parties agreed to submit the case for a final decision on whether a permanent injunction should issue on the basis of the record as already developed.

The District Court then vacated the preliminary injunction, denied respondents' requested permanent injunction, and entered summary judgment in favor of Renton. The court found that the Renton ordinance did not substantially restrict First Amendment interests, that Renton was not required to show specific adverse impact on Renton from the operation of adult theaters, but could rely on the experiences of other cities, that the purposes of the ordinance were unrelated to the suppression of speech, and that the restrictions on speech imposed by the ordinance were no greater than necessary to further the governmental interests involved. Relying on Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50"]427 U.S. 50 (1976), and 427 U.S. 50 (1976), and United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968), the court held that the Renton ordinance did not violate the First Amendment. [p46]

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Court of Appeals first concluded, contrary to the finding of the District Court, that the Renton ordinance constituted a substantial restriction on First Amendment interests. Then, using the standards set forth in United States v. O'Brien, supra, the Court of Appeals held that Renton had improperly relied on the experiences of other cities in lieu of evidence about the effects of adult theaters on Renton, that Renton had thus failed to establish adequately the existence of a substantial governmental interest in support of its ordinance, and that, in any event, Renton's asserted interests had not been shown to be unrelated to the suppression of expression. The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the District Court for reconsideration of Renton's asserted interests.

In our view, the resolution of this case is largely dictated by our decision in Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., supra. There, although five Members of the Court did not agree on a single rationale for the decision, we held that the city of Detroit's zoning ordinance, which prohibited locating an adult theater within 1,000 feet of any two other "regulated uses" or within 600 feet of any residential zone, did not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 72-73 (plurality opinion of STEVENS, J., joined by BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ.); id. at 84 (POWELL, J., concurring). The Renton ordinance, like the one in American Mini Theatres, does not ban adult theaters altogether, but merely provides that such theaters may not be located within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, park, or school. The ordinance is therefore properly analyzed as a form of time, place, and manner regulation. Id. at 63, and n. 18; id. at 78-79 (POWELL, J., concurring).

Describing the ordinance as a time, place, and manner regulation is, of course, only the first step in our inquiry. This Court has long held that regulations enacted for the [p47] purpose of restraining speech on the basis of its content presumptively violate the First Amendment. See Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S. 455, 462-463, and n. 7 (1980); Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U.S. 92, 95, 98-99 (1972). On the other hand, so-called "content-neutral" time, place, and manner regulations are acceptable so long as they are designed to serve a substantial governmental interest and do not unreasonably limit alternative avenues of communication. See Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293 (1984); City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789, 807 (1984); Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc., 452 U.S. 640, 647-648 (1981).

At first glance, the Renton ordinance, like the ordinance in American Mini Theatres, does not appear to fit neatly into either the "content-based" or the "content-neutral" category. To be sure, the ordinance treats theaters that specialize in adult films differently from other kinds of theaters. Nevertheless, as the District Court concluded, the Renton ordinance is aimed not at the content of the films shown at "adult motion picture theatres," but rather at the secondary effects of such theaters on the surrounding community. The District Court found that the City Council's "predominate concerns" were with the secondary effects of adult theaters, and not with the content of adult films themselves. App. to Juris. Statement 31a (emphasis added). But the Court of Appeals, relying on its decision in Tovar v. Billmeyer, 721 F.2d 1260, 1266 (CA9 1983), held that this was not enough to sustain the ordinance. According to the Court of Appeals, if "a motivating factor" in enacting the ordinance was to restrict respondents' exercise of First Amendment rights, the ordinance would be invalid, apparently no matter how small a part this motivating factor may have played in the City Council's decision. 748 F.2d at 537 (emphasis in original). This view of the law was rejected in United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. at 382-386, the very case that the Court of Appeals said it was applying: [p48]

It is a familiar principle of constitutional law that this Court will not strike down an otherwise constitutional statute on the basis of an alleged illicit legislative motive. . . .

* * * *

. . . What motivates one legislator to make a speech about a statute is not necessarily what motivates scores of others to enact it, and the stakes are sufficiently high for us to eschew guesswork.

Id. at 383-384.

The District Court's finding as to "predominate" intent, left undisturbed by the Court of Appeals, is more than adequate to establish that the city's pursuit of its zoning interests here was unrelated to the suppression of free expression. The ordinance, by its terms, is designed to prevent crime, protect the city's retail trade, maintain property values, and generally "protec[t] and preserv[e] the quality of [the city's] neighborhoods, commercial districts, and the quality of urban life," not to suppress the expression of unpopular views. See App. to Juris. Statement 90a. As JUSTICE POWELL observed in American Mini Theatres,

[i]f [the city] had been concerned with restricting the message purveyed by adult theaters, it would have tried to close them or restrict their number, rather than circumscribe their choice as to location.

427 U.S. at 82, n. 4.

In short, the Renton ordinance is completely consistent with our definition of "content-neutral" speech regulations as those that "are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech." Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 748, 771 (1976) (emphasis added); Community for Creative NonViolence, supra, at 293; International Society for Krishna Consciousness, supra, at 648. The ordinance does not contravene the fundamental principle that underlies our concern about "content-based" speech regulations: that "government may not grant the use of a forum to people whose views it finds acceptable, but deny use to those wishing to express [p49] less favored or more controversial views." Mosley, supra, at 95-96.

It was with this understanding in mind that, in American Mini Theatres, a majority of this Court decided that, at least with respect to businesses that purvey sexually explicit materials, [n2] zoning ordinances designed to combat the undesirable secondary effects of such businesses are to be reviewed under the standards applicable to "content-neutral" time, place, and manner regulations. JUSTICE STEVENS, writing for the plurality, concluded that the city of Detroit was entitled to draw a distinction between adult theaters and other kinds of theaters "without violating the government's paramount obligation of neutrality in its regulation of protected communication," 427 U.S. at 70, noting that "[i]t is th[e] secondary effect which these zoning ordinances attempt to avoid, not the dissemination of ‘offensive' speech," id. at 71, n. 34. JUSTICE POWELL, in concurrence, elaborated:

[The] dissent misconceives the issue in this case by insisting that it involves an impermissible time, place, and manner restriction based on the content of expression. It involves nothing of the kind. We have here merely a decision by the city to treat certain movie theaters differently because they have markedly different effects upon their surroundings. . . . Moreover, even if this were a case involving a special governmental response to the content of one type of movie, it is possible that the result would be supported by a line of cases recognizing that the government can tailor its reaction to different types of speech according to the degree to which its special and overriding interests are implicated. [p50] See, e.g., Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 509-511 (1969); Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 413-414 (1974); Greer v. Spock, 424 U.S. 828, 842-844 (1976) (POWELL, J., concurring); cf. CSC v. Letter Carriers, 413 U.S. 548 (1973).

Id. at 81, n. 6. The appropriate inquiry in this case, then, is whether the Renton ordinance is designed to serve a substantial governmental interest and allows for reasonable alternative avenues of communication. See Community for Creative NonViolence, 468 U.S. at 293; International Society for Krishna Consciousness, 452 U.S. at 649, 654. It is clear that the ordinance meets such a standard. As a majority of this Court recognized in American Mini Theatres, a City's "interest in attempting to preserve the quality of urban life is one that must be accorded high respect." 427 U.S. at 71 (plurality opinion); see id. at 80 (POWELL, J., concurring) ("Nor is there doubt that the interests furthered by this ordinance are both important and substantial"). Exactly the same vital governmental interests are at stake here.

The Court of Appeals ruled, however, that, because the Renton ordinance was enacted without the benefit of studies specifically relating to "the particular problems or needs of Renton," the city's justifications for the ordinance were "conclusory and speculative." 748 F.2d at 537. We think the Court of Appeals imposed on the city an unnecessarily rigid burden of proof. The record in this case reveals that Renton relied heavily on the experience of, and studies produced by, the city of Seattle. In Seattle, as in Renton, the adult theater zoning ordinance was aimed at preventing the secondary effects caused by the presence of even one such theater in a given neighborhood. See Northend Cinema, Inc. v. Seattle, 90 Wash.2d 709, 585 P.2d 1153 (1978). The opinion of the Supreme Court of Washington in Northend Cinema, which [p51] was before the Renton City Council when it enacted the ordinance in question here, described Seattle's experience as follows:

The amendments to the City's zoning code which are at issue here are the culmination of a long period of study and discussion of the problems of adult movie theaters in residential areas of the City. . . . [T]he City's Department of Community Development made a study of the need for zoning controls of adult theaters. . . . The study analyzed the City's zoning scheme, comprehensive plan, and land uses around existing adult motion picture theaters. . . .

Id. at 711, 585 P.2d at 1155.

[T]he [trial] court heard extensive testimony regarding the history and purpose of these ordinances. It heard expert testimony on the adverse effects of the presence of adult motion picture theaters on neighborhood children and community improvement efforts. The court's detailed findings, which include a finding that the location of adult theaters has a harmful effect on the area and contribute to neighborhood blight, are supported by substantial evidence in the record.

Id. at 713, 585 P.2d at 1156.

The record is replete with testimony regarding the effects of adult movie theater locations on residential neighborhoods.

Id. at 719, 585 P.2d at 1159.

We hold that Renton was entitled to rely on the experiences of Seattle and other cities, and in particular on the "detailed findings" summarized in the Washington Supreme Court's Northend Cinema opinion, in enacting its adult theater zoning ordinance. The First Amendment does not require a city, before enacting such an ordinance, to conduct new studies or produce evidence independent of that already generated by other cities, so long as whatever evidence the city relies upon is reasonably believed to be relevant to the [p52] problem that the city addresses. That was the case here. Nor is our holding affected by the fact that Seattle ultimately chose a different method of adult theater zoning than that chosen by Renton, since Seattle's choice of a different remedy to combat the secondary effects of adult theaters does not call into question either Seattle's identification of those secondary effects or the relevance of Seattle's experience to Renton.

We also find no constitutional defect in the method chosen by Renton to further its substantial interests. Cities may regulate adult theaters by dispersing them, as in Detroit, or by effectively concentrating them, as in Renton.

It is not our function to appraise the wisdom of [the city's] decision to require adult theaters to be separated, rather than concentrated in the same areas. . . . [T]he city must be allowed a reasonable opportunity to experiment with solutions to admittedly serious problems.

American Mini Theatres, 427 U.S. at 71 (plurality opinion). Moreover, the Renton ordinance is "narrowly tailored" to affect only that category of theaters shown to produce the unwanted secondary effects, thus avoiding the flaw that proved fatal to the regulations in Schad v. Mount Ephraim, 452 U.S. 61 (1981), and Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975).

Respondents contend that the Renton ordinance is "underinclusive," in that it fails to regulate other kinds of adult businesses that are likely to produce secondary effects similar to those produced by adult theaters. On this record, the contention must fail. There is no evidence that, at the time the Renton ordinance was enacted, any other adult business was located in, or was contemplating moving into, Renton. In fact, Resolution No. 2368, enacted in October, 1980, states that "the City of Renton does not, at the present time, have any business whose primary purpose is the sale, rental, or showing of sexually explicit materials." App. 42. That Renton chose first to address the potential problems created [p53] by one particular kind of adult business in no way suggests that the city has "singled out" adult theaters for discriminatory treatment. We simply have no basis on this record for assuming that Renton will not, in the future, amend its ordinance to include other kinds of adult businesses that have been shown to produce the same kinds of secondary effects as adult theaters. See Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., 348 U.S. 483, 488-489 (1955).

Finally, turning to the question whether the Renton ordinance allows for reasonable alternative avenues of communication, we note that the ordinance leaves some 520 acres, or more than five percent of the entire land area of Renton, open to use as adult theater sites. The District Court found, and the Court of Appeals did not dispute the finding, that the 520 acres of land consists of "[a]mple, accessible real estate," including "acreage in all stages of development from raw land to developed, industrial, warehouse, office, and shopping space that is Criss-Crossed by freeways, highways, and roads." App. to Juris. Statement 28a.

Respondents argue, however, that some of the land in question is already occupied by existing businesses, that "practically none" of the undeveloped land is currently for sale or lease, and that, in general, there are no "commercially viable" adult theater sites within the 520 acres left open by the Renton ordinance. Brief for Appellees 34-37. The Court of Appeals accepted these arguments, [n3] concluded that [p54] the 520 acres was not truly "available" land, and therefore held that the Renton ordinance "would result in a substantial restriction" on speech. 748 F.2d at 534.

We disagree with both the reasoning and the conclusion of the Court of Appeals. That respondents must fend for themselves in the real estate market, on an equal footing with other prospective purchasers and lessees, does not give rise to a First Amendment violation. And although we have cautioned against the enactment of zoning regulations that have "the effect of suppressing, or greatly restricting access to, lawful speech," American Mini Theatres, 427 U.S. at 71, n. 35 (plurality opinion), we have never suggested that the First Amendment compels the Government to ensure that adult theaters, or any other kinds of speech-related businesses for that matter, will be able to obtain sites at bargain prices. See id. at 78 (POWELL, J., concurring) ("The inquiry for First Amendment purposes is not concerned with economic impact"). In our view, the First Amendment requires only that Renton refrain from effectively denying respondents a reasonable opportunity to open and operate an adult theater within the city, and the ordinance before us easily meets this requirement.

In sum, we find that the Renton ordinance represents a valid governmental response to the "admittedly serious problems" created by adult theaters. See id. at 71 (plurality opinion). Renton has not used "the power to zone as a pretext for suppressing expression," id. at 84 (POWELL, J., concurring), but rather has sought to make some areas available for adult theaters and their patrons, while at the same time preserving the quality of life in the community at large by preventing those theaters from locating in other areas. This, after all, is the essence of zoning. Here, as in American Mini Theatres, the city has enacted a zoning ordinance that meets these goals while also satisfying the dictates of the [p55] First Amendment. [n4] The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore


JUSTICE BLACKMUN concurs in the result.

1. This appeal was taken under 28 U.S.C. § 1254(2), which provides this Court with appellate jurisdiction at the behest of a party relying on a state statute or local ordinance held unconstitutional by a court of appeals. As we have previously noted, there is some question whether jurisdiction under § 1254(2) is available to review a nonfinal judgment. See South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. v. Flemming, 351 U.S. 901 (1956); Slaker v. O'Connor, 278 U.S. 188 (1929). But see Chicago v. Atchison, T. & S.F. R. Co., 357 U.S. 77, 82-83 (1958).

The present appeal seeks review of a judgment remanding the case to the District Court. We need not resolve whether this appeal is proper under § 1254(2), however, because, in any event we have certiorari jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2103. As we have previously done in equivalent situations, see El Paso v. Simmons, 379 U.S. 497, 503-503 (1965); Doran v. Salem Inn, Inc., 422 U.S. 922, 927 (1975), we dismiss the appeal and, treating the papers as a petition for certiorari, grant the writ of certiorari. Henceforth, we shall refer to the parties as "petitioners" and "respondents."

2. See American Mini Theatres, 427 U.S. at 70 (plurality opinion) ("[I]t is manifest that society's interest in protecting this type of expression is of a wholly different, and lesser, magnitude than the interest in untrammeled political debate. . . .").

3. The Court of Appeals' rejection of the District Court's findings on this issue may have stemmed in part from the belief, expressed elsewhere in the Court of Appeals' opinion, that, under Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485 (1984), appellate courts have a duty to review de novo all mixed findings of law and fact relevant to the application of First Amendment principles. See 748 F.2d 527, 535 (1984). We need not review the correctness of the Court of Appeals' interpretation of Bose Corp., since we determine that, under any standard of review, the District Court's findings should not have been disturbed.

4. Respondents argue, as an "alternative basis" for affirming the decision of the Court of Appeals, that the Renton ordinance violates their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As should be apparent from our preceding discussion, respondents can fare no better under the Equal Protection Clause than under the First Amendment itself. See Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. at 63-73.

Respondents also argue that the Renton ordinance is unconstitutionally vague. More particularly, respondents challenge the ordinance's application to buildings "used" for presenting sexually explicit films, where the term "used" describes "a continuing course of conduct of exhibiting [sexually explicit films] in a manner which appeals to a prurient interest." App. to Juris. Statement 96a. We reject respondents' "vagueness" argument for the same reasons that led us to reject a similar challenge in American Mini Theatres, supra. There, the Detroit ordinance applied to theaters "used to present material distinguished or characterized by an emphasis on [sexually explicit matter]." Id. at 63. We held that "even if there may be some uncertainty about the effect of the ordinances on other litigants, they are unquestionably applicable to these respondents." Id. at 68-69. We also held that the Detroit ordinance created no "significant deterrent effect" that might justify invocation of the First Amendment "overbreadth" doctrine. Id. at 69-61.