City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres
Decided on Feb. 25, 1986; 475 US 41


A. Issues Discussed: Free speech

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a city ordinance that prohibits adult motion picture theaters from locating within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, park, or school violate the First and/or Fourteenth Amendment?


A. Background:

"In May 1980, the Mayor of Renton, a city of approximately 32,000 people located just south of Seattle, suggested to the Renton City Council that it consider the advisability of enacting zoning legislation dealing with adult entertainment uses....

In April 1981, acting on the basis of the Planning and Development Committee's recommendation, the City Council enacted Ordinance No. 3526. The ordinance 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 early 1982, respondents acquired two existing theaters in downtown Renton, 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] lawsuit challenging the ordinance on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. While the federal action was pending, the City Council amended the ordinance in several respects, adding a statement of reasons for its enactment and reducing the minimum distance from any school to 1,000 feet.

In November 1982, the Federal Magistrate to whom respondents' action had been referred recommended the entry of a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Renton ordinance and the denial of Renton's motions to dismiss and for summary judgment. The District Court adopted the Magistrate's recommendations and entered the preliminary injunction, and respondents began showing adult films at their two theaters in Renton. Shortly thereafter, the parties agreed to submit the case for a final decision on whether a permanent injunction should issue on the basis of the record as already developed.

The District Court then vacated the preliminary injunction, denied respondents' requested permanent injunction, and entered summary judgment in favor of Renton....

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed...."

On appeal the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by David Utevsky, Jack D. Novik, and Burt Neuborne; and for the American Booksellers Association, Inc., et al. by Michael A. Bamberger.

Jack R. Burns argued the cause for appellees. With him on the briefs was Robert E. Smith.

Brief of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for Jackson County, Missouri, by Russell D. Jacobson; for the Freedom Council Foundation by Wendell R. Bird and Robert K. Skolrood; for the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers by George Agnost, Roy D. Bates, Benjamin L. Brown, J. Lamar Shelley, John W. Witt, Roger F. Cutler, Robert J. Alfton, James K. Baker, Barbara Mather, James D. Montgomery, Clifford D. Pierce, Jr., William H. Taube, William I. Thornton, Jr., and Charles S. Rhyne; and for the National League of Cities et al. by Benna Ruth Solomon, Joyce Holmes Benjamin, Beate Bloch, and Lawrence R. Velvel.

E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were David W. Burgett, Lawrence J. Warren, Daniel Kellogg, Mark E. Barber, and Zanetta L. Fontes.


"In our view, the resolution of this case is largely dictated by our decision in Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., supra. There, although five Members of the Court did not agree on a single rationale for the decision, we held that the city of Detroit's zoning ordinance, which prohibited locating an adult theater within 1,000 feet of any two other 'regulated uses' or within 500 feet of any residential zone, did not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Renton ordinance, like the one in American Mini Theatres, does not ban adult theaters altogether, but merely provides that such theaters may not be located within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, single- or multiple-family dwelling, church, park, or school. The ordinance is therefore properly analyzed as a form of time, place, and manner regulation...

The District Court's finding as to 'predominate' intent, left undisturbed by the Court of Appeals, is more than adequate to establish that the city's pursuit of its zoning interests here was unrelated to the suppression of free expression. The ordinance by its terms is designed to prevent crime, protect the city's retail trade, maintain property values, and generally 'protec[t] and preserv[e] the quality of [the city's] neighborhoods, commercial districts, and the quality of urban life,' not to suppress the expression of unpopular views....

Finally, turning to the question whether the Renton ordinance allows for reasonable alternative avenues of communication, we note that the ordinance leaves some 520 acres, or more than five percent of the entire land area of Renton, open to use as adult theater sites....

Respondents argue, however, that some of the land in question is already occupied by existing businesses, that 'practically none' of the undeveloped land is currently for sale or lease, and that in general there are no 'commercially viable' adult theater sites within the 520 acres left open by the Renton ordinance...

We disagree with both the reasoning and the conclusion of the Court of Appeals. 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 First Amendment violation...

In sum, we find that the Renton ordinance represents a valid governmental response to the 'admittedly serious problems' created by adult theaters. Renton has not used 'the power to zone as a pretext for suppressing expression,' but rather has sought to make some areas available for adult theaters and their patrons, while at the same time preserving the quality of life in the community at large by preventing those theaters from locating in other areas. This, after all, is the essence of zoning..."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 2 Pro vs. 7 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmace of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.