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Court Rules That NYC Can Limit Porn Shops & Strip Clubs Under Giuliani-Era Law

Show World Center in 2010
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Show World Center in 2010 Getty Images

A decades-long legal battle over adult entertainment purveyors in NYC may have finally ended on Tuesday, with the city lawyers prevailing in their effort to cut down on "sexually focused businesses" such as topless bars and adult video stores in heavily-trafficked areas.

On Tuesday, the New York Court of Appeals reinstated a 2001 law banning storefronts with "live performances characterized by an emphasis on certain specified anatomical areas or specified sexual activities" from most commercial and residential neighborhoods. Previously, lower courts had ruled that the Giuliani-era ordinance violated the owners' First Amendment right—an argument that five of six judges on the state's highest court did not find compelling.

"We hold that the city has met its burden of demonstrating that the establishments affected by its 2001 zoning amendments retained a predominant focus on sexually explicit materials or activities," Judge Eugene Fahey wrote in the decision. "It follows, under our 2005 decision in this case, that the amendments do not violate plaintiffs' First Amendment rights."

The ruling also prevents these businesses from operating within 500 feet of a school, church or park.

Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city's Law Department, said the office was pleased with the decision. "The Court agreed that the city acted reasonably and lawfully to stem the widespread circumvention of zoning regulations intended to protect our quality of life," he said.

Prior to the 2001 law, the adult entertainment industry had won a court decision creating the so-called 60/40 rule, which permitted adult businesses to remain open as long as no more than 40 percent of their floor space was devoted to adult material (this, by the way, is why so many strip clubs have steakhouses inside). And before that decision, the newly reinstated law banning smut sellers from residential and commercial areas sent many of Manhattan's X-rated shops to Queens and Brooklyn (this, in part, explains why a single industrial stretch of Sunset Park is home to eight storefronts advertising private masturbation booths).

Of course other factors, like skyrocketing rents and the emergence of the internet, have also contributed to the disappearance of once ubiquitous porn palaces. If Show World Center, the landmark Times Square XXX establishment owned by late smut king Richard Basciano does in fact close, that would bring the number of porn shops around 8th Avenue down to three. In the 1970s, at the time of the store's opening, there were upwards of 150 such shops in the area.

The impact of Tuesday's ruling on the city's strip clubs also remains unclear, though many of the city's best known clubs possess special licenses that would exempt them from the decision. As Ed Anakar of Rick's Caberet explains to the The Real Deal, "Now, clubs with licenses are poised to clean up. If you have a market where there are 20 businesses and half go away, that's going to be a boost for the remaining participants."

Erica Dubno, an attorney who's represented the adult entertainment industry in this fight since the 1990s, told Gothamist that her clients were disappointed in the decision, and are weighing bringing the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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