Regulations enacted for the purpose of restraining speech on the basis of its content presumptively violate U.S. Const. amend. I. On the other hand, so-called "content-neutral" time, place, and manner regulations are acceptable so long as they are designed to serve a substantial governmental interest and do not unreasonably limit alternative avenues of communication.
In 1981, Renton City Council enacted Ordinance No. 3526 which prohibited any adult motion picture theater from locating within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, or park, and within one mile of any school. In 1982, respondents, Playtime Theatres, Inc., et al., purchased two theaters in Renton, Washington, with the intention of using them to exhibit feature-length adult films. The theaters were located within the area proscribed by Ordinance No. 3526. At about the same time, respondents filed a suit challenging the ordinance. The respondents argued that the ordinance violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments; they sought declaratory judgment and a permanent injunction against its enforcement. The District Court ruled in favor of Renton and denied the permanent injunction, asserting that the Renton ordinance did not substantially restrict First Amendment interests, and that Renton was not required to show specific adverse impact on Renton from the operation of adult theaters but could rely on the experiences of other cities. The District Court further argued that the purposes of the ordinance were unrelated to the suppression of speech, and that the restrictions on speech imposed by the ordinance were no greater than necessary to further the governmental interests involved. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for reconsideration. The Court of Appeals held that Renton had improperly relied on the experiences of other cities in lieu of evidence about the effects of adult theaters on Renton; thus, Renton had failed to establish adequately the existence of a substantial governmental interest in support of its ordinance. The appellate court opined that, in any event, Renton's asserted interests had not been shown to be unrelated to the suppression of expression.
Was Ordinance No. 3526 unconstitutional?
The Court held that Ordinance No. 3526 was constitutional. According to the Court, the ordinance is a valid governmental response to the serious problems created by adult theaters and satisfies the dictates of the First Amendment. Since the ordinance does not ban adult theaters altogether, it is properly analyzed as a form of time, place, and manner regulation. "Content-neutral" time, place, and manner regulations are acceptable so long as they are designed to serve a substantial governmental interest and do not unreasonably limit alternative avenues of communication. The Court determined that the Renton ordinance is designed to serve a substantial governmental interest while allowing for reasonable alternative avenues of communication. Although the ordinance was enacted without the benefit of studies specifically relating to Renton's particular problems, the Court ruled that Renton was entitled to rely on the experiences of, and studies produced by, the nearby city of Seattle and other cities. Nor was there any constitutional defect in the method chosen by Renton to further its substantial interests. As required by the First Amendment, the Court determined that the ordinance allows for reasonable alternative avenues of communication. Although respondents argue that in general there are no "commercially viable" adult theater sites within the limited area of land left open for such theaters by the ordinance, the fact that respondents must fend for themselves in the real estate market, on an equal footing with other prospective purchasers and lessees, does not give rise to a violation of the First Amendment, which does not compel the Government to ensure that adult theaters, or any other kinds of speech-related [****4] businesses, will be able to obtain sites at bargain prices.