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Starry Decisis: Los Angeles's Lusty Legal History

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This column is the first in a series of articles on important Supreme Court cases that have developed out of events in Los Angeles. "Stare Decisis" is the guiding principle of the American legal system - the court should "let the decision stand" and respect precedent for the sake of the rule of law. Even though it is known for shaping American pop culture, Los Angeles has shaped American legal culture in more ways than we may like to admit.

Pornography law, much like pornography itself, would be nowhere without the movies. The People vs. Larry Flynt, for example, made a martyr out of the smut magnate while educating the country on the limits of the First Amendment. More importantly, though, the Supreme Court's decisions about obscenity have developed out of cases brought by or against adult video stores. It's only fitting that the most notable recent decision in this field came from silicone city itself.

Los Angeles, in its awkward position as the entertainment industry's lover and landlord, had passed two zoning ordinances regulating the location of adult entertainment stores. The first ordinance, enacted in 1977, prohibited adult stores from locating within 1,000 feet from each other. Problem is, the 1,000 feet was measured between the exterior walls of the businesses. Adult store owners exploited a loophole in the law that permitted two adult businesses to operate within the same building. Like the cockroach, the porn proprietor endures.

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In fact, adult stores skated by for quite some time under the radar, even in the midst of a second ordinance, passed in 1983, forbidding adult businesses from locating in the same structure. In 1995, a city inspector discovered that Alameda Books, named for its location on Alameda Street just south of the 10, was skirting the rule by locating its bookstore and video rental facilities in the same building as its "arcade" facilities, where customers would pay to watch porn flicks. To prevent the city from enforcing the zoning ordinance, Alameda Books sued the city on First Amendment grounds.