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Judge strikes down NYC law meant to keep X-rated shops away from schools

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Pedestrians pass an adult store in Times Square in New York City. The state's supreme court on Thursday deemed that a set of amendments in 2001 meant to tighten the city's regulation of strip clubs, topless bars and adult video and book stores violated the constitutional protections of free speech and were unnecessary.

NEW YORK -- A New York City zoning law designed to keep adult entertainment businesses away from schools, churches and residential neighborhoods was deemed unconstitutional by a New York state judge on Thursday.

Justice Louis York of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan said a set of amendments in 2001 meant to tighten the city's regulation of strip clubs, topless bars and adult video and book stores violated the constitutional protections of free speech and were unnecessary.

York said adult establishments today differ from their predecessors by having less garish signage and by segregating their erotica from more mainstream parts of their business, making them less conspicuous to the public.

"These entities no longer operate in an atmosphere placing more dominance of sexual matters over non-sexual ones," York said, ruling on two lawsuits lodged by a group of adult businesses against the city.

Thursday's ruling will have the biggest effect on the dozens of bars, restaurants, book and video stores that offer adult entertainment alongside non-X-rated services.

According to The New York Times, the original 1995 city law defined an "adult establishment" as any business where more than 40 percent of its material was sexually oriented in nature.

The 1995 law helped break up clusters of sexually themed businesses and scatter them to New York City's industrial areas, the Times said. As a result, many city neighborhoods were remade and gentrified, according to the paper.

But by the end of the decade, city authorities believed that many of these outlets, often referred to as "60-40 establishments," merely kept a few shelves of non-X-rated material on their premises in order to mask the true nature of their business, according to the Times.

The 2001 amendments defined many such establishments as "adult enterprises" and barred them from operating closer than 500 feet from other sexually oriented venues, or from schools, places of worship and homes.

Current city guidelines allow venues where less than 40 percent of space or inventory is devoted to sexually explicit activities to operate anywhere in the city.

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Studies don't link crime rates and strip clubs, judge says
York noted that studies presented to the court concluded that the presence of adult establishments did not increase crime rates or lower property value, as previously believed.

"Accordingly there is no need for the 2001 amendments ... they are a violation of free-speech provisions of the U.S. and state constitutions," he said.

Martin P. Mehler, a lawyer for several topless clubs in the case, told the Times that the city's defense of the 2001 amendments failed because the original rule had worked.

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"We have adhered to what the law was," Mehler told the Times.

"It has accomplished its goal of doing away with that tawdry atmosphere that used to exist in Times Square, and there was no need to take away a basic First Amendment right," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

The ruling was a loss for city officials who have sought to crack down on what they call "sham compliance" by venues that employ methods such as piling stacks of children's videos on the floor in order to ostensibly devote 60 percent of their inventory to non-adult material.

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Robin Binder, deputy chief of the administrative law division of the City Law Department, said her agency would appeal the decision.

"The city's ability to regulate adult establishments is critical to preserving neighborhood quality of life," Binder said in a statement.

'That's just un-American'
Others called the ruling a triumph for freedom.

"It's wrong for a city or a state to say, 'We're banning this type of literature, and we're not going to allow you to read or see it,' " Herald Price Fahringer, an attorney for video stores represented in the lawsuits, told the Times.

"That's just un-American," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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