SAN FRANCISCO — In a case raising free-speech issues, the California Supreme Court on Thursday refused to block the revocation of a Los Angeles adult theater owner's permit to show films on charges he knowingly allowed patrons to engage in illegal sexual conduct.
The court, over one dissent, declined to hear claims that revocation of the permit by city officials violated the constitutional rights of the theater owner.
In a brief order, the justices let stand an appellate court ruling that found that while both the state and federal Constitutions protected the showing of movies at the theater, the city could still move against the owner to combat lewd conduct on the premises.
But the high court also said the appellate decision could not be cited as legal precedent in other cases, thus limiting its impact to the dispute immediately at issue.
The case involved the Valley Adult Theater in North Hollywood, owned by Seung Chun Lim. In April, 1983, undercover Los Angeles police officers began making arrests for illegal conduct by patrons and Lim was warned that continued arrests could jeopardize his license to show films there.
According to testimony, Lim took some steps to remedy the problem by improving the lighting and posting warnings against lewd conduct. He hired a 70-year security guard who occasionally patrolled the aisles with a flashlight but was identifiable only by a piece of cardboard stuck in his cap labeled "guard."
In 1985, the Police Department sought revocation of Lim's permit, charging that he knowingly allowed illegal sex acts to be committed on the premises. The Board of Police Commissioners ordered the revocation, and lawyers for the owner took the issue to court, contending his free-speech rights were being violated.
In March, a panel of the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles found that city officials did not violate the First Amendment by penalizing a theater owner for allowing illegal activity.
The panel acknowledged that under a 1958 appellate ruling, theater management could not be held responsible for lewd conduct by patrons where it took "all reasonable steps" to prevent such conduct. "However, the key word here is reasonable and what was reasonable (in other cases) does not suffice in this case," Appellate Justice Arleigh Woods wrote for a unanimous three-judge court.
The court said that in theaters showing pornographic films a "higher degree of supervision" may be required. It was clear that Lim was aware of the need to take "strong preventive measures" at his theater, the court said, and there was substantial evidence he failed to take "vigorous and significant action."
The justices' order Thursday declining to review the appellate court ruling was signed by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas. Justice John A. Arguelles did not participate in the action, and Justice Stanley Mosk voted to grant review.
Lim's attorney, Roger Jon Diamond of Pacific Palisades, expressed dismay with the action. "This is another example of the court becoming political," he said of a court that is now dominated by appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian. "They're really not attuned to the First Amendment."
Assistant City Atty. Lewis N. Unger welcomed the court's action, saying it would enable Los Angeles, as well as other municipalities, to act against illegal activities taking place in adult theaters. "This place has been closed and now can remain closed," he said.