Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc.,
427 U.S. 50 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50 (1976)

Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc.

No. 75-312

Argued March 24, 1976

Decided June 24, 1976

427 U.S. 50


Respondent operators of two adult motion picture theaters brought this action against petitioner city officials for injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment of unconstitutionality regarding two 1972 Detroit zoning ordinances that amended an "Anti-Skid Row Ordinance" adopted 10 years earlier. The 1972 ordinances provide that an adult theater may not (apart from a special waiver) be located within 1,000 feet of any two other "regulated uses" or within 500 feet of a residential area. The term "regulated uses" applies to 10 different kinds of establishments in addition to adult theaters, including adult book stores, cabarets, bars, taxi dance halls, and hotels. If the theater is used to present

"material distinguished or characterized by an emphasis on matter depicting . . . 'specified Sexual Activities' or 'specified Anatomical Areas,'"

it is an "adult" establishment. The District Court upheld the ordinances, and granted petitioners' motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the ordinances constituted a prior restraint on constitutionally protected communication and violated equal protection. Respondents, in addition to asserting the correctness of that court's ruling with respect to those constitutional issues, contend that the ordinances are void for vagueness. While not attacking the specificity of the definitions of sexual activities or anatomical areas, respondents maintain (1) that they cannot determine how much of the described activity may be permissible before an exhibition is "characterized by an emphasis" on such matter, and (2) that the ordinances do not specify adequate procedures or standards for obtaining a waiver of the 1,000-foot restriction.


1. The ordinances, as applied to these respondents, do not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on the ground of vagueness. Pp. 427 U. S. 58-61.

(a) Neither of the asserted elements of vagueness has affected these respondents, both of which propose to offer adult fare on a regular basis and allege no ground for claiming or anticipating any waiver of the 1,000-foot restriction. Pp. 427 U. S. 58-59.

Page 427 U. S. 51

(b) The ordinances will have no demonstrably significant effect on the exhibition of films protected by the First Amendment. To the extent that any area of doubt exists as to the amount of sexually explicit activity that may be portrayed before material can be said to be "characterized by an emphasis" on such matter, there is no reason why the ordinances are not "readily subject to a narrowing construction by the state courts." This would therefore be an inappropriate case to apply the principle urged by respondents that they be permitted to challenge the ordinances not because their own rights of free expression are violated, but because of the assumption that the ordinances' very existence may cause others not before the court to refrain from constitutionally protected speech or expression. Pp. 427 U. S. 59-61.

2. The ordinances are not invalid under the First Amendment as prior restraints on protected communication because of the licensing or zoning requirements. Though adult films may be exhibited commercially only in licensed theaters, that is also true of all films. That the place where films may be exhibited is regulated does not violate free expression, the city's interest in planning and regulating the use of property for commercial purposes being clearly adequate to support the locational restriction. Pp. 427 U. S. 62-63.

518 F.2d 1014, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL (except for Part III), and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 427 U. S. 73. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 427 U. S. 84. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 427 U. S. 88.

Page 427 U. S. 52

Primary Holding

It is constitutional for a city to enact a zoning rule that treats ordinary cinemas differently from adult cinemas.


Zoning ordinances in the city of Detroit required adult movie theaters to be dispersed across the city. They could not be located within 1,000 feet of any two other regulated uses (other adult theaters or nine other types of establishments) or within 500 feet of a residential area.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

The city may regulate the use of commercial property within its boundaries, and its interest in maintaining the quality of urban life supports its implementation of the 1,000-foot restriction. On its own, this does not infringe on First Amendment rights, even though adult movies are admittedly a former of protected speech and the regulation is content-based. These types of movie theaters are associated with serious risks to the public well-being, so the city should have some flexibility in determining an appropriate response.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

Rather than merely a content-neutral time, place, and manner restriction, or a regulation of unprotected obscene speech, this ordinance is a content-based regulation of material that is fully protected by the First Amendment. Even if some people find it socially undesirable, regulations governing it should receive no less stringent a level of scrutiny.


  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Thurgood Marshall

Case Commentary

The main interest stated by the city in enacting such a rigid rule was preserving the character of its neighborhoods, which may seem relatively flimsy at face value. However, the Court gave great deference to the city's rationale because of its connection to reducing crime and other social ills. The law also was not a categorical ban, which probably would have been struck down, but merely a time, place, and manner type of restriction that is likely to be valid if it is reasonably related to a legitimate government interest and not overly burdensome.

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