Ruling keeps Missouri from raising minimum age for strippers

? A Missouri law raising the minimum age for nude dancers from 18 to 19 appears to be a violation of the First Amendment right to free expression, a federal judge ruled in barring enforcement of the law.

“I’m not persuaded that (the law) furthers a substantial government interest, nor am I persuaded that the government interest in this case is unrelated to suppression of free speech,” U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith ruled Wednesday.

The law had been set to take effect Thursday, but Bazooka’s, a Kansas City cabaret featuring nude dancing, and two of its 18-year-old dancers sought a restraining order.

Smith said the 18-year-old dancers were likely to suffer irreparable harm if the statute were enforced. Both dancers testified Wednesday, describing themselves as “live adult entertainers” whose work at Bazooka’s was the primary means of support for themselves and their 2-year-old children.

After the hearing, the general manager of Bazooka’s, Richard T. Snow, said he was pleased with Smith’s ruling.

“I didn’t think the government’s case had any merit,” Snow said.

Bazooka’s and the two dancers — Ashlea Nichol Williamson and Christine Dunkin — sued on Monday to prevent enforcement of the statute. Jay Nixon, as the state’s attorney general charged with enforcing Missouri’s laws, was named as the only defendant.

The law was passed by the General Assembly in May and signed by Gov. Bob Holden last month. Tucked into an otherwise unrelated liquor-control bill, the provision was sponsored by Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla.

At the time, Steelman was quoted as saying that women could earn hundreds of dollars a day dancing nude but were at risk of being exploited. She also expressed concern that young women who performed in adult clubs might get involved in pornography.

Bazooka’s is a so-called juice bar and serves no alcohol. As such, it is not regulated by state and local laws requiring dancers in clubs that serve alcohol to be partly covered.

In arguing that the minimum-age law was arbitrary and violated the First Amendment, Bazooka’s attorney Richard Bryant acknowledged that the government could regulate nude dancing but said the statute impinged too much on the right of free speech.

The bill, he said, bans 18-year-olds “from engaging in the exact same activity as a 19-year-old,” even though 18-year-olds are not considered minors under Missouri law.

Assistant Atty. Gen. John Mollenkamp argued that while the law prohibited 18-year-olds from dancing nude in adult clubs, it did not prevent them from dancing partly clothed in clubs that serve liquor, dancing nude in the privacy of their homes or even appearing nude in videotapes.

Mollenkamp said it was up to lawmakers, not the courts, to determine the rightful age.