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In Doran v. Salem Inn (1975) considered a First Amendment challenge to an ordinance banning topless dancing in nightclubs. In this photo, Aubrey Moore, center, dances at the Colorado Bar & Grill in 1997. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, used with permission from the Associated Press)

In Doran v. Salem Inn, 422 U.S. 922 (1975), the Supreme Court considered a First Amendment challenge to an ordinance banning topless dancing in nightclubs.


Nightclubs said ordinance against topless dancing violated First Amendment rights


Writing for the majority of eight, Justice William H. Rehnquist suggested that barroom dancing “might be entitled to First and Fourteenth Amendment protection under some circumstances.” The Court ruled that one nightclub, which was being prosecuted, was not entitled to have its claims for relief considered, whereas the other two were.


Although Rehnquist’s decision touched briefly upon freedom of expression, the case focused on three New York nightclubs (M & L, Salem, and Tim-Rob) that sued North Hempstead’s attorney Francis F. Doran and others seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO), preliminary injunction, and declaratory relief from an ordinance proscribing topless dancing.


Clubs said law violated First Amendment rights


The clubs, which argued that the law infringed upon their First Amendment rights, voluntarily stopped their topless performances to file suit. After the district court denied the TRO, but about two weeks before the preliminary injunction hearing, M & L resumed topless dancing and was promptly served with criminal summonses.


The district court and court of appeals concluded that judicial energy would be conserved, and potentially conflicting outcomes avoided, by granting a preliminary injunction to all three nightclubs.


Court looked at when injuctive and declatory relief could be given during state prosecutions


In reviewing the First Amendment challenge, the Court considered Younger v. Harris (1971), barring federal injunctive relief when state prosecution is pending; Samuels v. Mackell (1971), barring declaratory relief when state prosecution is pending; and Steffel v. Thompson (1974), allowing declaratory relief when no state prosecution is pending.


The Court asked whether Younger, Steffel, and Samuels “must give way” to interests in efficient judicial administration and avoiding conflicting outcomes.


While recognizing that there “may be some circumstances in which legally distinct parties are so closely related that they should all be subject to the Younger considerations which govern any one of them,” Rehnquist distinguished Doran, observing that the bars (although sharing counsel and operating in similar formats) were “unrelated in terms of ownership, control, and management.”


Bars’ requests for injunctive and declaratory relief were barred


Rehnquist concluded that each corporation “stood alone.” M & L’s requests for injunctive and declaratory relief were barred under Younger and Samuels, respectively.


Salem and Tim-Rob were free to seek declaratory relief because neither had been prosecuted before obtaining the preliminary injunction. The preliminary injunctions against Salem and Tim-Rob were thus not subject to the restrictions of Younger.


This article was originally published in 2009. Cary Wiggins is a civil rights attorney with his practice in Atlanta. He has served as lead counsel in numerous cases involving First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and Fourteenth Amendment claims. He frequently represents individuals who are asserting false arrest, malicious prosecution, excessive force, and public accommodation claims, as well as businesses seeking constitutional protections.


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