City lifts ban on adult entertainment licenses

Tuesday, October 13, 1998

City officials in Providence, R.I., say they will end their 18-month ban on adult entertainment licenses, citing a federal judge's recent decision finding the ban unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

Federal District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux determined in D'Ambra v. City of Providence that the ban was “indefinite,” “unilateral,” and vested the Board of Licenses with “unbridled power.”

Lagueux's ruling means that Dennis D'Ambra will receive a license to operate a non-alcoholic nude dance club in the city. Kevin McHugh, assistant city solicitor, said that D'Ambra will likely receive his license later this week. “We are under a mandatory injunction to do so,” he said.

D'Ambra sued the city shortly after the Board of Licenses rejected his application in March 1997, informing him that they were instituting a moratorium on the issuance of adult entertainment licenses.

The licensing board instituted the ban, according to McHugh, after incidents of prostitution were uncovered at several adult entertainment clubs around town in September 1996. McHugh, who handles the city's adult entertainment litigation, said an investigation in November 1996 revealed further problems with prostitution at several clubs.

Nevertheless, Lagueux struck the ban down late last month, largely because it had no time limit. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that licensing officials cannot have unfettered discretion to either issue or deny a license.

In its 1990 decision FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, the high court wrote: “Where the licensor has unlimited time within which to issue a license, the risk of arbitrary suppression is as great as the provision of unbridled discretion. A scheme that fails to set reasonable time limits on the decisionmaker creates the risk of indefinitely suppressing permissible speech.”

John Dineen, D'Ambra's attorney, said: “I was confident we could successfully challenge this content-based ban, because there was no time limit at all in the moratorium.”

City solicitor Charles Mansolillo described the case as “very narrow.” He said that the city will not appeal in part because “we still have a zoning ordinance that provides for and provides protection from adult businesses.”

McHugh agreed, adding: “There is really not an appealable issue. The opinion was very strong and very clear. The judge ruled the moratorium was facially unconstitutional.”