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Business hour restriction on strip club violates freedom of speech, Alaska Supreme Court rules

Club Sin Rock is located at 64th Avenue and C Street. Photographed Aug. 2, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Anchorage can no longer force strip clubs to close in the early hours of the morning under an Alaska Supreme Court decision that found the restriction violates constitutional free speech protections.

The unanimous ruling bars the city from forcing adult cabarets — nude dance clubs that don’t serve alcohol — to comply with a 1977 ordinance prohibiting “adult-oriented” businesses from operating between 2 and 6 a.m. That includes businesses like adult bookstores, massage parlors and escort services.

“They’re not subject to any hours restriction imposed by municipal code,” municipal attorney Rebecca Windt-Pearson said Friday.

Club SinRock, an adult cabaret in South Anchorage, challenged the ordinance in 2016, when the city threatened not to renew the club’s license after discovering it had been operating as late as 4 a.m., Justice Daniel Winfree wrote in the court’s opinion.

Club SinRock has been operating past the 2 a.m. cutoff since it was established, according to one of its attorneys, Susan Orlansky. The club’s voicemail lists its hours as being from “7:30 p.m. until the fun stops.”

“They were basically cutting out the meat and potatoes of the hours of operation,” said Tim Lyons, the founder and majority owner of Club SinRock. “It’s like telling an ice cream company they can’t be open during the hottest time of the year.”

The club’s attorneys argued the ordinance unconstitutionally restricted nude dancing as a form of free expression.

Club Sin Rock is located at 64th Avenue and C Street. Photographed Aug. 2, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The state Supreme Court has previously upheld sexual forms of expression as protected under the Alaska Constitution, which provides broader speech protections than the U.S. Constitution. Under a 1982 Alaska Supreme Court decision, “(l)aws prohibiting free expression, based on the content of the expression, are sustainable only for the most compelling of reasons," Winfree wrote.

The hours restriction was originally implemented to protects against prostitution, noise and traffic congestion in residential neighborhoods where many adult-oriented businesses were located, according to the opinion.

However, the court found the city didn’t have enough evidence that strip clubs had contributed to those negative impacts to justify forcing them to close at a certain hour.

“There was no evidence, direct or indirect, connecting forced early morning closures with reducing these secondary effects,” Winfree wrote.

Lyons said the club hasn’t had any run-ins with law enforcement or complaints from the public since it opened in 2007, and zoning regulations keep the club out of sight anyway.

“We’re away from things and out of people’s lives who don’t want us to be in their lives,” Lyons said.

The club also argued that the Anchorage Assembly had not intended for the restriction to apply to adult cabarets, saying that until 2003, the law’s definition of “adult-oriented establishments” explicitly excluded adult cabarets. When the Assembly opted to include them in the new definition, it wasn’t clear whether the ramifications were fully understood, the club argued.

The Supreme Court, however, found that argument “unpersuasive,” according to the opinion.

The decision doesn’t bar the city from ever implementing an early-hours restriction on the businesses, said Windt-Pearson, the municipal attorney, but the city would have to provide more substantial evidence of negative impacts to justify a forced closure.

Windt-Pearson said she was unsure whether any municipal department was considering revisiting the ordinance, but noted the Department of Law would be studying the potential ramifications the decision might have on other adult-oriented businesses.

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