City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres,
475 U.S. 41 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, 475 U.S. 41 (1986)

City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc.

No. 84-1360

Argued November 12, 1985

Decided February 25, 1986

475 U.S. 41


Respondents purchased two theaters in Renton, Washington, with the intention of exhibiting adult films and, at about the same time, filed suit in Federal District Court, seeking injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that the First and Fourteenth Amendments were violated by 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. The District Court ultimately entered summary judgment in the city's favor, holding that the ordinance did not violate the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the ordinance constituted a substantial restriction on First Amendment interests, and remanded the case for reconsideration as to whether the city had substantial governmental interests to support the ordinance.

Held: The ordinance is a valid governmental response to the serious problems created by adult theaters and satisfies the dictates of the First Amendment. Cf. Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U. S. 50. Pp. 475 U. S. 46-55.

(a) Since the ordinance does not ban adult theaters altogether, it is properly analyzed as a form of time, place, and manner regulation. "Content-neutral" time, place, and manner regulations are acceptable so long as they are designed to serve a substantial governmental interest and do not unreasonably limit alternative avenues of communication. Pp. 475 U. S. 46-47.

(b) The District Court found that the Renton City Council's "predominate" concerns were with the secondary effects of adult theaters on the surrounding community, not with the content of adult films themselves. This finding is more than adequate to establish that the city's pursuit of its zoning interests was unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and thus the ordinance is a "content-neutral" speech regulation. Pp. 475 U. S. 47-50.

(c) The Renton ordinance is designed to serve a substantial governmental interest while allowing for reasonable alternative avenues of communication. A city's interest in attempting to preserve the quality of urban life, as here, must be accorded high respect. Although the ordinance was enacted without the benefit of studies specifically relating to

Page 475 U. S. 42

Renton's particular problems, Renton was entitled to rely on the experiences of, and studies produced by, the nearby city of Seattle and other cities. Nor was there any constitutional defect in the method chosen by Renton to further its substantial interests. Cities may regulate adult theaters by dispersing them, or by effectively concentrating them, as in Renton. Moreover, the ordinance is not "underinclusive" for failing to regulate other kinds of adult businesses, since there was no evidence that, at the time the ordinance was enacted, any other adult business was located in, or was contemplating moving into, Renton. Pp. 50-53.

(d) As required by the First Amendment, the ordinance allows for reasonable alternative avenues of communication. Although respondents argue that, in general, there are no "commercially viable" adult theater sites within the limited area of land left open for such theaters by the ordinance, the fact 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 violation of the First Amendment, which does not compel the Government to ensure that adult theaters, or any other kinds of speech-related businesses, will be able to obtain sites at bargain prices. Pp. 53-54.

748 F.2d 527, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., concurred in the result. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 475 U. S. 55.

Page 475 U. S. 43

Primary Holding

Zoning regulations that control the areas where adult movie theaters are located do not violate the First Amendment.


In order to limit the negative impact of adult movie theaters, the City of Renton passed an ordinance prohibiting them from operating within 1,000 feet of certain public and private facilities or within a mile of the school. All but five percent of the city was covered by the ordinance's prohibition, which Playtime Theaters challenged on First Amendment grounds. The city received summary judgment in the trial court, only to have that decision reversed by the Ninth Circuit.



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

The appropriate standard for evaluating content-neutral restrictions on speech is whether the government has a substantial interest in enacting those restrictions and whether it did not unreasonably limit alternative forms of communication. The ordinance is content-neutral because it is focused on protecting the community from the blight associated with adult theaters rather than prohibiting the content of the films. It is constitutional because the city has a substantial interest in protecting its residents from that blight, and certain areas of the city still are available for the movie theaters.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Thurgood Marshall

This is not a content-neutral regulation, so the more stringent standard for evaluating content-based regulations under the First Amendment should be applied.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

Case Commentary

This standard can be defined as something closer to the intermediate scrutiny review used for gender discrimination than rational basis or strict scrutiny. There is a broad spectrum of standards in First Amendment cases, and it is often hard to predict which the Court will choose.

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