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VANCE ET AL. v. UNIVERSAL AMUSEMENT CO.

decided: March 18, 1980.

VANCE ET AL
v.
UNIVERSAL AMUSEMENT CO., INC., ET AL.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

Author: Per Curiam

[ 445 U.S. Page 309]

 The question presented in this unusual obscenity case is whether the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit correctly held a Texas public nuisance statute unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals read the Texas statute as authorizing a prior restraint of indefinite duration on the exhibition of motion pictures without a final judicial determination of obscenity and without any guarantee of prompt review of a preliminary finding of probable obscenity. Cf. Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51 (1965); Southeastern Promotions, Ltd. v. Conrad, 420 U.S. 546 (1975). In this Court, appellants argue that such a restraint is no more serious than that imposed by Texas' criminal statutes and that it is therefore constitutional. We find appellants' argument unpersuasive and affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

In 1973, appellee King Arts Theatre, Inc. (hereafter appellee), operated an indoor, adults-only motion picture theater. In October of that year, appellee's landlord gave notice that the theater's lease would be terminated. The notice stated that the County Attorney had informed the landlord that he intended to obtain an injunction to abate the theater as a public nuisance in order to prevent the future showing of allegedly obscene motion pictures. Appellee responded by filing suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas seeking an injunction and declaratory relief to forestall any action by the County Attorney under the Texas nuisance statutes. The case was transferred to a three-judge District Court sitting in the Southern District of Texas for consolidation with a number of other pending obscenity cases.

Two different Texas statutes were in issue at that point.

[ 445 U.S. Page 310]

     The first, Tex. Rev. Civ. Stat. Ann., Art. 4666 (Vernon 1952),*fn1 authorizes injunction suits in the name of the State against alleged nuisances. If successful, "judgment shall be rendered abating said nuisance and enjoining the defendants from maintaining the same, and ordering that said house be closed for one year," unless certain conditions are met. The second nuisance statute, Art. 4667 (a) (Vernon Supp. 1978), provides that certain habitual uses of premises shall constitute a public nuisance and shall be enjoined at the suit of either the State or any citizen. Among the prohibited uses is "the commercial manufacturing, commercial distribution, or commercial exhibition of obscene material."*fn2

[ 445 U.S. Page 311]

     The three-judge District Court held that both of these statutes authorize state judges, on the basis of a showing that obscene films have been exhibited in the past, to prohibit the future exhibition of motion pictures that have not yet been found to be obscene. 404 F.Supp. 33 (1975). Recognizing that it is not unusual in nuisance litigation to prohibit future conduct on the basis of a finding of undesirable past or present conduct, the District Court read Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697 (1931), to require a special analysis when the prohibited future conduct may be protected by the First Amendment.*fn3 The routine abatement procedure, which the District Court characterized as "the heavy hand of the public nuisance statute," was considered constitutionally deficient in the First Amendment context.

[ 445 U.S. Page 312]

     Specifically, the District Court noted that a general prohibition would operate as a prior restraint on unnamed motion pictures, and that even orders temporarily restraining the exhibition of specific films could be entered ex parte.*fn4 Moreover, such a temporary restraining order could be extended by a temporary injunction based on a showing of probable success on the merits and without a final determination of obscenity.*fn5 The District Court concluded that the nuisance statutes, when coupled with the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure governing injunctions, operate as an invalid prior restraint on the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Because the three-judge District Court granted only declaratory and not injunctive relief, the State appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. See Gerstein v. Coe, 417 U.S. 279 (1974). A divided panel of that court reversed. 559 F.2d 1286 (1977). The panel

[ 445 U.S. Page 313]

     majority acknowledged that if Art. 4666 authorized the closing of a motion picture theater for all uses for a year, it "would pose serious first amendment questions," 559 F.2d, at 1290, but held that the District Court had misconstrued Art. 4666 in that it was not intended to apply to obscenity cases.*fn6

The panel majority disagreed more fundamentally with the District Court's view of Art. 4667 (a). It held that the injunction procedure authorized by that statute was " basically sound" in its application to an establishment such as appellee's:

"The statute authorizes an injunction against the commercial manufacture, distribution or exhibition of obscene material only. Because the injunction follows, rather than precedes, a judicial determination that obscene material has been shown or distributed or manufactured on the premises and because its prohibitions can apply only to further dealings with obscene and unprotected material, it does not constitute a prior restraint." 559 F.2d, at 1292 (emphasis in original).

Further, the panel majority found no problem under Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51 (1965), because any temporary restraint entered pending a final adjudication on the issue of obscenity would be imposed by a judge, not an administrative censor. The judgment of the District Court was therefore reversed.*fn7

[ 445 U.S. Page 314]

     The Court of Appeals granted rehearing en banc, and reversed the panel's holding that Art. 4667 (a) is constitutional. 587 F.2d 159 (1978).*fn8 The 8-to-6 majority found the statute objectionable because it "would allow the issuance of an injunction against the future exhibition of unnamed films that depict particular acts enumerated in the state's obscenity statute," id., at 168, and "lacks the procedural safeguards required under Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51. . . ." Id., at 169.*fn9 The dissenters wrote that a pragmatic assessment of the statute's operation indicated that once the contemplated injunction was in effect, it would impose no greater a prior restraint than a criminal statute forbidding exhibition of materials deemed obscene under Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).*fn10

The Texas defendants appealed to this Court, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 442 U.S. 928. We limit our review

[ 445 U.S. Page 315]

     to the two arguments advanced in appellants' brief:*fn11 first, that an "obscenity injunction" under Art. 4667 (a)(3) constitutes no greater a prior restraint than any criminal statute and, second, that the Court of Appeals erroneously held that no ...


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