Can a city impose a buffer zone between adult entertainers and patrons?

Friday, November 15, 2002

Most courts have upheld patron-performer buffer zones as a reasonable time, place and manner restriction on expression. These courts have determined that buffer zones are a narrowly drawn way of prohibiting illegal sexual contact and even drug transactions. These courts often say that the exact distance of the buffer zone is a legislative, rather than a judicial, matter.

For example, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 10-foot buffer requirement in Colacurcio v. City of Kent, writing: “We leave the fine-tuning of the distance requirement to the legislative body.” The adult establishments in that case argued that the city had alternatives that would burden expression less, such as a no-touch rule or a one-foot buffer zone. The appeals court majority sided with the city.

A few courts, however, have determined that buffer zones burden more speech than necessary to achieve their objectives. For example, a federal court in Texas struck down a 6-foot buffer zone, ruling that the city’s interests could be fully satisfied with a 3-foot buffer that would not ban as much expression.