Nevada high court: Brothel owner has right to hang with Hell’s Angels

Thursday, February 10, 2000

A Nevada county violated the First Amendment rights of a brothel owner by revoking his business license because of his association with the Hell’s Angels, the state high court has ruled.

In 1998, the Storey County licensing board revoked the brothel license of David Burgess, who has operated the Old Bridge Ranch in the county since 1983.

Board members ordered Burgess to appear before them to respond to complaints of “motorcycle noise, harassment of local residents and failure to pay the applicable license.” However, Burgess had paid all licensing fees.

The June 1998 licensing hearing focused almost entirely on Burgess’ association with the Hell’s Angels, an infamous motorcycle gang that county officials said was linked to organized crime.

After the board revoked his license, Burgess filed a lawsuit in state court, alleging violation of his due-process and First Amendment rights. Burgess alleged that county officials violated his First Amendment free-association rights by punishing him because he associated with the Hell’s Angels.

A state trial court judge dismissed Burgess’ lawsuit. On appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed in Burgess v. Storey County Board of Commissioners.

Citing the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roberts v. United States Jaycees, the Nevada high court wrote in its Feb. 2 decision: “The United States Supreme Court has stated that all Americans have ‘a right to associate for the purposes of engaging in those activities protected by the First Amendment — speech, assembly, petition for the redress of grievances, and the exercise of religion.’”

The Nevada high court also cited a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, United States v. Rubio, which recognized an individual’s right to associate with the Hell’s Angels.

The state high court noted that the right to associate is not absolute and said that county officials had the burden to show a compelling government interest to justify restricting Burgess’ First Amendment rights.

“None of the evidence introduced at the hearing had anything to do with the criminal activities of Burgess or the Old Bridge Ranch,” the court wrote. “The Board failed to demonstrate a compelling state interest to justify a restriction on Burgess’s right to associate.”

The state high court concluded: “Therefore, we conclude that the Board violated the First Amendment when it revoked Burgess’s brothel license because of his association with the Hell’s Angels.”

The attorneys who handled the case could not be reached for comment. A message left for Burgess at the Old Bridge Ranch was not returned.