Young v. American Mini Theaters, Inc.

427 U.S. 50

Case Year: 1976

Case Ruling: 5-4, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Stevens

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Burger, Powell, Rehnquist, White


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Powell


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Stewart

Joiner(s): Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


To combat the effects of adult theaters, nightclubs, and bookstores, local governments frequently rely on their zoning powers. The Supreme Court examined the question of zoning restrictions on such establishments in Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc. (1976). At issue were amendments to Detroit's "anti-Skid Row" ordinance, which targeted theaters exhibiting sexually explicit films. The law prohibited the location of an "adult" theater within five hundred feet of a residential area or within one thousand feet of two or more similar theaters or bars, pool halls, dance halls, pawnshops, or other specified establishments. The goal was to avoid a concentration of businesses considered undesirable. American Mini Theatres was in the adult entertainment business. The company had converted a corner gas station into a mini-theater called the Pussy Cat, at which it hoped to show sexually explicit films. The city denied the company's request for a license to operate based on the fact that the theater's location was in violation of the anti-Skid Row amendments. The company challenged the denial on First Amendment grounds. A divided Supreme Court upheld the denial by a 5-4 vote.



... As they did in the District Court, respondents contend that the ordinances are ... invalid under the First Amendment as prior restraints on protected communication....

Petitioners acknowledge that the ordinances prohibit theaters which are not licensed as "adult motion picture theaters" from exhibiting films which are protected by the First Amendment. Respondents argue that the ordinances are therefore invalid as prior restraints on free speech.

The ordinances are not challenged on the ground that they impose a limit on the total number of adult theaters which may operate in the city of Detroit. There is no claim that distributors or exhibitors of adult films are denied access to the market or, conversely, that the viewing public is unable to satisfy its appetite for sexually explicit fare. Viewed as an entity, the market for this commodity is essentially unrestrained. It is true, however, that adult films may only be exhibited commercially in licensed theaters. But that is also true of all motion pictures. The city's general zoning laws require all motion picture theaters to satisfy certain locational as well as other requirements; we have no doubt that the municipality may control the location of theaters as well as the location of other commercial establishments, either by confining them to certain specified commercial zones or by requiring that they be dispersed throughout the city. The mere fact that the commercial exploitation of material protected by the First Amendment is subject to zoning and other licensing requirements is not a sufficient reason for invalidating these ordinances.

Putting to one side for the moment the fact that adult motion picture theaters must satisfy a locational restriction not applicable to other theaters, we are also persuaded that the 1,000-foot restriction does not, in itself, create an impermissible restraint on protected communication. The city's interest in planning and regulating the use of property for commercial purposes is clearly adequate to support that kind of restriction applicable to all theaters within the city limits. In short, apart from the fact that the ordinances treat adult theaters differently from other theaters and the fact that the classification is predicated on the content of material shown in the respective theaters, the regulation of the place where such films may be exhibited does not offend the First Amendment....

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is



Although I agree with much of what is said in the Court's opinion ... my approach to the resolution of this case is sufficiently different to prompt me to write separately. I view the case as presenting an example of innovative land-use regulation, implicating First Amendment concerns only incidentally and to a limited extent.


The Court today holds that the First and Fourteenth Amendments do not prevent the city of Detroit from using a system of prior restraints and criminal sanctions to enforce content-based restrictions on the geographic location of motion picture theaters that exhibit non-obscene but sexually oriented films. I dissent from this drastic departure from established principles of First Amendment law.

This case does not involve a simple zoning ordinance, or a content-neutral time, place, and manner restriction, or a regulation of obscene expression or other speech that is entitled to less than the full protection of the First Amendment. The kind of expression at issue here is no doubt objectionable to some, but that fact does not diminish its protected status any more than did the particular content of the "offensive" expression in Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (display of nudity on a drive-in movie screen) ... Cohen v. California, (wearing of clothing inscribed with a vulgar remark); Brandenburg v. Ohio (utterance of racial slurs); or Kingsley Pictures Corp. v. Regents (alluring portrayal of adultery as proper behavior). What this case does involve is the constitutional permissibility of selective interference with protected speech whose content is thought to produce distasteful effects. It is elementary that a prime function of the First Amendment is to guard against just such interference. By refusing to invalidate Detroit's ordinance the Court rides roughshod over cardinal principles of First Amendment law, which require that time, place, and manner regulations that affect protected expression be content neutral except in the limited context of a captive or juvenile audience....

The fact that the "offensive" speech here may not address "important" topics--"ideas of social and political significance," in the Court's terminology, does not mean that it is less worthy of constitutional protection... "[S]ex and obscenity are not synonymous.... The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works, is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press. Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern."... I can only interpret today's decision as an aberration. The Court is undoubtedly sympathetic, as am I, to the well-intentioned efforts of Detroit to "clean up" its streets and prevent the proliferation of "skid rows." But it is in those instances where protected speech grates most unpleasantly against the sensibilities that judicial vigilance must be at its height.

Heretofore, the Court has not shied from its responsibility to protect "offensive" speech from governmental interference. Just last Term in Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, the Court held that a city could not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make it a public nuisance for a drive-in movie theater to show films containing nudity if the screen were visible from a public street or place. The factual parallels between that case and this one are striking. There, as here, the ordinance did not forbid altogether the "distasteful" expression but merely required an alteration in the physical setting of the forum. There, as here, the city's principal asserted interest was in minimizing the "undesirable" effects of speech having a particular content. And, most significantly, the particular content of the restricted speech at issue in Erznoznik precisely parallels the content restriction embodied in Detroit's definition of "Specified Anatomical Areas."... In short, Erznoznik is almost on "all fours" with this case.

The Court must never forget that the consequences of rigorously enforcing the guarantees of the First Amendment are frequently unpleasant. Much speech that seems to be of little or no value will enter the marketplace of ideas, threatening the quality of our social discourse and, more generally, the serenity of our lives. But that is the price to be paid for constitutional freedom.