The operators of two adult motion picture theaters challenged the Detroit ordinance that required adult movie theaters not located near residential areas or regulated uses. The city argued that the ordinance was necessary because the location of several regulated uses in the same neighborhood has attracted undesirable transients, adversely affecting property values and increasing crime.
The Government may not tell the citizen what he may or may not say.
The Detroit ordinance prohibited exhibition of adult movies and required that an adult theater may not be located near any two other regulated uses such as bars and hotels or a residential area. The ordinance classified as adult if material is characterized by emphasis on matters relating to specified sexual activities. The effect of the ordinance was to reduce the exhibitions in the city, not to ban the display entirely.
Does the city ordinance that prohibits exhibition of adult movies and required that an adult theater may not be located near any two other regulated uses such as bars and hotels or a residential area violate the Constitution?
No, the Detroit ordinances regulates on the basis of content without violating the Government’s obligation of neutrality in its regulation of protected communication. Where sexually explicit films may be exhibited is unaffected by social, political, or philosophical message the film may be intended to communicate.
While the kind of expression at issue may be objectionable to some people, it is still protected just as any other content of the offensive expression. By holding the ordinance constitutional, the Court goes over the First Amendment principles which require that time, place and manner regulations that affect protected expression be content-neutral. Moreover, the fact that offensive speech may address important topics such as ideas of social and political significance does not mean that it is of no worthy of constitutional protection.
The proper inquiry for First Amendment purposes looks only to the effect of the ordinance upon freedom of expression. This essentially entails two questions: whether the ordinance imposes any content limitation on the creators of adult movies and whether it restricts in any significant way the viewing of these movies by those who wish to see them. The record shows that the Detroit ordinance does not impose any content limitation or restricts the viewing.
Even though the First Amendment does not tolerate the total suppression of erotic materials, the State may legitimately use the content of these materials as the basis for placing them in a different classification from other motion pictures. The city’s interest in attempting to preserve the quality of urban life is one that must be accorded high respect and the city must be allowed a reasonable opportunity to experiment with solutions to serious problems. Thus, even if the ordinance seeks to regulate content of movie films, the city’s interest is high and legitimate enough to outweigh the burden.