Locked in a decades-long legal battle that could decide the fate of X-rated businesses in New York City, a group of strip club, adult bookstore, and video peep show operators have won a temporary reprieve from a city zoning regulation that they argued was a violation of their freedom of speech.
In a decision handed down on Monday, U.S. District Judge William Pauley III ruled that the city is temporarily barred from imposing a 2001 zoning law that broadened the definition of so-called adult establishments and which would force many to relocate.
Judge Pauley argued that the city would not be harmed by a temporary injunction since the 2001 zoning laws have never been enforced due to years of pending litigation. The federal lawsuit, which was brought by gentlemen club owners, dates back to 2002. It was revived in 2018 after the owners of New York Dolls, Satin Dolls and Lace Gentlemen's Club lost their case in the State Court of Appeals.
All told, the decision on Monday affects about 20 business owners operating clubs or adult bookstores across the city.
The ruling does not have any bearing on the case’s final outcome, which would determine where the city’s zoning rules are in fact constitutional. The city has long contended that X-rated establishments contribute to crime and negatively impact both property values and quality of life.
But the judge noted that the city’s study on this issue, a 1994 Department of City Planning report, is considerably out of date.
“The City’s landscape has transformed dramatically” since that time, he wrote.
Erica Dubno, an attorney who represents the group of video store owners in the case, wrote in a statement to Gothamist that “Judge Pauley’s well-reasoned decision safeguards the First Amendment as well as the public’s right to access constitutionally protected information. The world has changed significantly since the Giuliani administration tried to sanitize New York City and eliminate these small businesses."
Similarly, John Weston, a lawyer for Sapphire New York nightclub, one of the plaintiffs, told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re obviously pleased and grateful for the result. It’s very clear that the court put a great deal of time and thought and care into the decision.”
A spokesperson for the city's law department argued that the ruling had no bearing on the merits of the case. “This ruling, as the Court reiterated, says nothing about whether the adult-only businesses will succeed on the merits of their claims," the statement said. "In fact, the state Court of Appeals ruled for the City in a similar challenge and upheld the zoning regulations at issue here.”
The adult entertainment industry is on its last legs in New York City. Under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who vowed to rid Times Square of porn shops, peep shows and other adult establishments, the city in 1995 passed a zoning law change that defined such businesses as ones where at least 40 percent of the floor area was dedicated to "adult use" and also prohibited them from operating within 500 feet of a school, day care center, or house of worship. The regulation, along with rising rents, had a significant impact. According to the latest federal lawsuit, in 1993 there were 177 adult establishments in the city. That number has now fallen to around 20.
Show World Center, once referred to as the Wal-Mart of porn, shuttered last year. The store, which featured video peep shows, was part of the larger "sex superstore" Show World which opened in the 1970s and helped define Times Square's pornographic character, which has been dramatized in the HBO Series "The Deuce," currently in its third and final season.
Jeremiah Moss, the author of "Vanishing New York," and others bemoaned the closing as the further sanitization of a once seedy but interesting city. At the time, he wrote on his blog: "It's totally unlikely that a new Show World will open in the spot. We'll probably get a chain store of one kind or another. That's what the new Times Square deserves."
The parties for the case will reconvene at the end of the month.