Federal judge says “no go” to East Grand Forks’ attempt to regulate adult media

August 1, 2012

Much of the law that protects the media comes from the world of adult media, and a dispute over an “adult” business ordinance in East Grand Forks, Minn., provides the latest chapter.

Last week, a federal judge took the fairly unusual step of enjoining the city from enforcing an ordinance against “Fantasysrus” because the ordinance potentially infringes on First Amendment rights. 

Judge John Tunheim ruled that the ordinance was too vague to be enforced because it did not define “adult uses” and permitted arbitrary enforcement.  As the judge explained:

The East Grand Forks city ordinance does not define “sexually oriented” and provides no guidance as to how much of the merchandise or activity must be sexually explicit or an “adult use” to trigger the ordinance. Consequently, an art gallery with some paintings of nudes, a dance studio that teaches belly dancing, a sauna that allowed nudity at certain times, or a bookstore selling Fifty Shades of Gray could be “sexually oriented” or not, depending on the discretion of the city official.

Judge Tunheim also ruled that because the ordinance provided no framework for differentiating between a “sexually oriented store” and a “sexually oriented bookshop,” the city got too much discretion over who could operate a business and who could not.

The decision is yet another reminder that the government has limited power to restrict not only the freedom of expression, but the freedom to purchase others’ expression—even when the expression has more to do with what goes on behind closed doors.

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