A federal judge in Maryland yesterday struck down a state statute meant to ban strip clubs, finding it would place unconstitutional limits on free speech while violating the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.
The suit is a victory for the venerable Legend Night Club of Prince George’s County and its co-plaintiff, the Classics Nightclub, which challenged the law after it was passed in 2005. In addition to musical performances, both clubs offer “adult entertainment.”
But for those who haven't been fearing for the fate of the Classics’ Thursday night male “revue,” the case also happens to make for an interesting, and somewhat hilarious, study in statutory interpretation.
On first gloss, the Maryland law would simply seem to ban such activities as exotic dancing, peep shows, and lap dances anywhere with a liquor license. But by putting strictures on a whole list of naughty-sounding activities, including anything even simulating a sex act, the legislature went too far, wrote Judge Marvin Garbis of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Baltimore Division.
Bans against performers touching each other’s buttocks, for instance, could prevent ballet dancers from lifting each other into the air, he noted, quoting the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Restrictions on even brief nudity would have prevented the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit” from being performed. Shakespeare, political satire, and musical theater (think “The Full Monty”) could all suffer as well.
“The restrictions would also punish the owners of [Fed Ex Stadium] for allowing [Redskins] players or coaches to give a congratulatory pat on the bottom during a game,” Garbis wrote. “While this conduct may not be protected by the First Amendment, and so we do not count it as an impermissible application, it does illustrate restrictions at issue here.”
Of course, the problems with the statute didn’t stop with free speech violations. No, this statute appeared to violate the 14th Amendment as well, Garbis found.
As it turns out, legislators had carved a very particular grandfather clause into the bill, allowing any nightclub that received an adult entertainment license before Aug. 15, 1981, to remain in business. Not so coincidentally, former Maryland state senator Tommie Broadwater owns a gentlemen’s club that received a license on Aug. 14, 1981.
“The Court finds Plaintiffs to have established beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Legislation's ‘grandfather clause’ was deliberately crafted to favor the potentially connected former Senator,” Garbis wrote. One more reason, he said, to scrap the law.