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The Georgia Supreme Court last week took on a case that combined the subtleties of constitutional law and the adult entertainment business. At issue was a May decision by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin S. Arrington Sr. that struck down — as unconstitutional prior restraints on free speech — the county’s ordinances regulating nude-dancing establishments that serve alcohol. The ordinances had been challenged by Maxim Cabaret, formerly The Coronet Club, which for years offered nude dancing and allowed patrons to “brown bag” their own beverages, meaning the club did not need a license to serve alcohol. In March 2003, Maxim began offering burlesque entertainment that did not involve complete nudity and got an alcohol license for its new business model. But seven months later the club went back to a nude format and sought a new adult entertainment license allowing it to serve alcohol. The county refused, demanding that the club first seek a special permit from zoning officials. Maxim sued, and Arrington granted the club’s motion for summary judgment. Key to Arrington’s ruling — and of particular interest to Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Presiding Justice Carol W. Hunstein and Justice P. Harris Hines — were three studies conducted by the county linking criminal activity to adult entertainment establishments that serve alcohol. Such linkage was essential to establishing the legitimate public interest necessary to infringe on constitutionally protected expression, according to Maxim attorney Alan I. Begner of Atlanta’s Begner & Begner. Assistant County Attorney Steven E. Rosenberg pointed to a 2001 study in which Fulton police compared crime statistics near the county’s five alcohol-serving strip clubs with Maxim’s predecessor, The Coronet Club, which did not serve alcohol. Arguing that alcohol-serving adult entertainment clubs are more prone to crime than similar clubs that do not serve alcohol, Rosenberg said, “The Coronet had about 4 percent of the total criminal activity,” while the other five clubs “accounted for nearly 96 percent.” Sears noted that there was no comparison to the crime reported near non-adult entertainment clubs, while Hunstein suggested a broad solution to the problem Rosenberg described. “Can’t you just shut down all the clubs that serve alcohol?” she asked. Rosenberg later warned that if the court upheld Arrington’s ruling against both the county’s permitting and zoning regulations, the adult entertainment industry “will essentially have free rein in Fulton County.” During his turn, Begner argued, “There must be proof that there’s more crime and blight arising from nude clubs that serve alcohol than at regular bars or dance clubs,” said Begner. “Otherwise, there’s no legitimate interest” for the county’s regulations. The other two studies, he said, showed no apparent difference in the amount of crime or neighborhood blight near alcohol-serving clubs, regardless of whether there were nude dancers. Begner pointed out that Coronet’s prior practice of allowing patrons to bring in their own bottles meant there was “probably more alcohol there, because if you can bring your own, you’ll probably drink more.” He also faulted the study’s methodology, noting that three of the clubs are located near the same section of Fulton Industrial Highway that is notorious for prostitution and drug activity. “Any crime within a mile was laid on those clubs,” he said. “That study didn’t show a correlation.” Despite the sometimes tough questioning, Rosenberg said after the argument that he hoped the decision would be sent back to Arrington. “There really are some issues of fact that need to be resolved,” he said. Begner countered that “the prior rulings [against parts of the county's previous ordinance] really nailed Fulton County. Those ordinances have been broken a long time, and they know it.” Even so, he said, he is cautiously pessimistic. “I never predict they’ll rule my way.” The case is Fulton County v. Maxim Cabaret, No. S05A1893.

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