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Supreme Court accepts ‘adult’ case, declines appeal on graduation speech


WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court, acting on two cases involving limitations on free speech, has decided to review a ruling rejecting a city’s restriction on sexually explicit businesses but has declined to reconsider a school district’s refusal to allow a high school valedictorian to deliver a speech because of its Christian content.

The high court announced it would review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion declaring invalid a Los Angeles ordinance setting a minimum distance between two “adult entertainment businesses.” Oral arguments in the case, Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, will be heard in the next term, which begins in October.

Meanwhile, the justices announced without comment they had denied an appeal of another Ninth Circuit ruling. That appeals court decision upheld school officials’ right to bar a student’s graduation address because of its religious subject matter. The rejected case was Niemeyer v. Oroville Union High School.

In the graduation case, the Oroville, Calif., high school requested, as was its custom, valedictorian Chris Niemeyer to speak at the 1998 commencement. Niemeyer submitted his written speech to the principal, Larry Payne, in advance. In his text, Niemeyer spoke from a Christian perspective and exhorted the audience to “accept God’s love and grace.”

Payne and district superintendent Barry Kayrell objected to the address. Kayrell rejected the speech because of its “Christian viewpoint” and told Niemeyer he would need to remove the religious references in order to speak at graduation. Niemeyer refused to delete the references and filed suit in federal court.

In its decision, the Ninth Circuit upheld the federal court’s ruling against Niemeyer, describing his speech as “proselytizing” and a “religious practice.” Had school officials permitted Niemeyer’s speech from a religious perspective, they may have “compelled a dissenter’s implicit participation in the proselytizing” and violated the First Amendment’s ban on a government establishment of religion, the appeals court said.

In the other case, Los Angeles had enacted an ordinance preventing the operation of more than one “adult entertainment business” in the same building, as well as the operation of such an establishment within 1,000 feet of another such business or within 500 feet of a religious institution, school or public park. Alameda Books, as well as Highland Books, operated an adult bookstore and video arcade in the same building.

Both businesses sued to block enforcement of the ordinance, and a federal court found in their favor, ruling the ordinance was an unconstitutional prior restraint. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision, acknowledging the city had a government interest in reducing crime but ruling it had not shown proof the combination of sexually explicit businesses resulted in harmful secondary effects. Secondary effects include such societal problems as increases in sexual crimes and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as a decrease in property values.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in Erie v. Pap’s A.M. a city could ban nude dancing at “adult clubs” because the ordinance was designed to combat “negative secondary effects.”

The high court announced both actions March 5.
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