Strip clubs: regulations vs. rights in Oregon

Strip clubs: regulations vs. rights in Oregon

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon's lax regulations on strip clubs are under fire as lawmakers in both the House and Senate look for ways to keep nudity out of neighborhoods.

Legislators are pressing separate ideas to roll back the state constitution's iron-clad protections for freedom of expression far enough to allow regulation of strip clubs despite repeated rejections by voters over the past two decades.

"It's not saying these businesses shouldn't exist," said Rep. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton. "It's giving neighbors a choice to shape what their neighborhood is going to look like."

Read said the issue became more acute in his mind with the birth of his daughter a year ago.

Opponents of changing the law say freedom of expression is a basic right, and government should not have the ability to regulate speech it doesn't like.

"This is a fundamental portion of our bill of rights," said Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon. "These are our principles that have been part of our fundamental fabric of Oregon."

Oregon's Constitution says that "no law shall be passed ... restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever." Oregon courts have interpreted the clause to protect obscenity.

"I'm not certain exactly how the zoning regulations would play out, but it gives counties and city officials one more tool they can use to regulate these businesses," said Lisa Leithauser of SOS Oregon, a neighborhood group in Washington County that is fighting for tougher restrictions on strip clubs.

Leithauser said cities should have the ability to enact zoning laws restricting where strip clubs can operate. Adult businesses, she said, affect all the businesses in the area because they lure customers who aren't always well-behaved.

There are two proposals to scale back the constitution's free expression clause. Senate Joint Resolution 28 would ask voters to amend the Oregon Constitution to allow governments to restrict live entertainment involving nudity. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing Monday on the idea. Voters have rejected similar proposals three times in the past two decades — in 1994, 1996 and 2000.

In 2006, voters also rejected a proposal to restrict the freedom of expression clause in order to allow campaign finance restrictions.

With that history at the ballot box, some lawmakers have proposed taking a different approach. House Joint Resolution 35 would seek to rewrite the state free-expression clause to match the U.S. Constitution, declaring that the Legislature "shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." Such a move might allow courts to make a new interpretation of the boundaries on free speech.

Voters might be more inclined to replicate the protections in the federal Bill of Rights, Read said. Still, there's no guarantee state courts would interpret the new language to prohibit obscenity.

A third idea, HJR 34, proposes a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to make it illegal to give pornography to children. The idea has support from a bipartisan group of 27 co-sponsors, including leaders from both parties.

A constitutional amendment initiated by the Legislature would require majority votes from the House and Senate and approval by voters in November 2012.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.