The Law School Authority

City of Renton v. Playtime Theaters Case Brief

Summary of City of Renton v. Playtime Theaters (1986)

Renton, a suburb of Seattle, passes a zoning ordinance prohibiting adult theaters w/in 1000 feet of any residence, church, park, school.  Most films shown in adult theaters ≠ obscenity under Miller.  Thus, it is protected speech.

1.       Held: Balancing test for speech.

2.       Ct requires argument by the state that their method/rationale advance a SUBSTANTIAL GOVERNMENT INTEREST

a.       Uses the term “fit/narrow tailoring” = includes a notion that we need reasonable avenues of communication for the speech to be expressed.

b.      Here, there are reasonable alternatives—i.e. other physical areas on the map to have these theaters.  Does not matter that the prices of the real estate in those areas are high—1st A does not require that we give bargain prices for this—as long as a market exists.

(1)     If the reasonable alternative exists, then ct will defer to it.

(2)     This analysis is more lenient than EPC

i)                     Compare with Cleburn and Croson

ii)                   Also, Renton based studies on Seattle (very different community).  Ct: Ok.  Local findings are unnecessary.

iii)                  Ok for let cities choose different methods to mitigate secondary effects (e.g. Seattles “red zone” v. Renton’s disbursed design)

3.       Ct also attaching levels of scrutiny or a “tiered” approach.

a.       CONTENT-BASED: strict scrutiny

b.      CONTENT NEUTRAL (i.e. limiting speech for other reason besides content → secondary effects): intermediate level of speech

(1)     Usually permissive if the regulation goes to the health/safety/welfare of the state

(2)     1st A & Content Neutral Regulations on Speech

Govt is permitted to regulate IF

–          content-neutral speech, i.e. predominant govt concern is not the suppression of speech, rather goals unrelated to speech

–          if so, considered, “TMP”, not content-based, restriction

(3)     Test—looks like intermediate level of scrutiny

Govt permitted to regulate if the law is

–                      Designed/narrowly tailored to serve a substantial important govt interest

–                      Leaves reasonable alternative avenues of communication 

(4)     Reasonable Alternatives

→ Reasonable opportunity to engage in particular kind of speech w/in governmental unit (e.g. city)

“Speakers” subject to market like anyone else, but governmental regulation may not effectively suppress/greatly restrict access to lawful speech.


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