A group of exotic dancers in Louisiana say a new state law barring women under the age of 21 from stripping is a violation of their constitutional rights.
The recently enacted Act No. 395 declares that “entertainers whose breasts or buttocks are exposed to view shall perform only upon a stage at least eighteen inches above the immediate floor level and removed at least three feet from the nearest patron and shall be twenty-one years of age or older.”
(This is also the bill that made headlines when state legislator Kenny Havard proposed an amendment that would set a maximum age of 28 for exotic dancers and a maximum weight limit of 160 pounds. That amendment did not make it into the final law.)
The age requirement is new to Louisiana, meaning dancers under the age of 21 are now out of a job until they reach that age (or find a different line of work).
Last week, three unnamed plaintiffs — all between the ages of 18 to 20 — filed a federal lawsuit against the Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, alleging that the new age-restriction rule runs afoul of the Constitution on a number of fronts.
In their complaint [PDF], the plaintiffs contend that, whatever the legislation’s opinion on erotic dancing, it is a protected by the Constitution. In City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M., SCOTUS said that while stripping is “within the outer ambit of the First Amendment’s protection,” it is nonetheless a form of expression. By forbidding adults from dancing, the state is violating their First Amendment rights, say the plaintiffs.
The new law goes beyond just restricting dancing at strip bars, argues the complaint, it “also prohibits, for example, an eighteen-, nineteen-, or twenty-year-old from appearing in a theater production requiring nudity in any Louisiana venue that also has a permit to serve alcohol.”
The plaintiffs also say the law violates their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, because it is overly vague — for example, what exactly does it entail to have one’s “breasts or buttocks are exposed”? — and sweeps up entire forms of constitutionally protected expression.
“Act No. 395 denies Plaintiffs the ability to engage in protected free expression on the basis of age, and serves no compelling, substantial, or otherwise sufficient government interest permitting or justifying these constitutional violations,” reads the complaint, further arguing that the law “serves no rational basis for discriminating against Plaintiffs on the basis of their age.”
The plaintiffs question the motives of the legislators behind the law. The purported reason for the age change was to combat human trafficking, but the lawsuit contends “there is no evidence that the Act’s age restrictions will have any impact on human trafficking.”
In fact, a number of legislators’ comments cited in the complaint may indicate that some lawmakers were more concerned about putting an end to stripping altogether rather than fighting human trafficking.
“We need to do something to get these people [to] recognize that there’s another way of living,”said one legislator quoted in the complaint. “I wish there was something we could do to make them go to church or something.”
As such, the plaintiffs say the state is violating the dancers’ Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Similarly, the dancers argue that the age limit doesn’t abide by the Louisiana constitution’s protection against laws that “arbitrarily, capriciously, or unreasonably discriminate against a person because of birth, age, sex, culture, physical condition, or political ideas or affiliations.”
The plaintiffs counter the legislators’ image of strippers as victims or women of ill-repute. One 20-year-old woman says that dancing allows her to make the same money she was making working more than 90 hours a week at multiple retail jobs.
“Without her job as an erotic dancer, [she] will not be able to meet her financial obligations, nor will she be able to save for retirement,” reads the complaint, which says this plaintiff would “be forced to move to a State where she is not prohibited from expressing herself through her desired professional employment.”
A second plaintiff, age 18, says she supported herself by dancing after cancer killed both of her parents. The Social Security benefits she’d received as a minor stopped when he reached the age of majority. She no longer strips because of the law, so now she works as a non-naked “shot girl,” selling booze (that she can’t legally drink) to patrons at a bar (where she’s not allowed to dance). As a result, she says her income has dropped by 50%.
The lawsuit is asking the court to rule that the new law is unconstitutional, and issue an injunction barring the state from enforcing the restrictions.