NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A federal appeals court decision means authorities in Louisiana still cannot enforce a state law setting 21 as the minimum age for exotic dancers who wear next to nothing in bars and nightclubs.
Thursday’s ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was a victory for three women, each identified as Jane Doe, who were ages 18, 19 and 20 when their lawsuit challenging the law was filed last year. The three-judge appeals court panel upheld a federal district judge’s injunction blocking enforcement.
The law makes 21 the minimum age for “entertainers whose breasts or buttocks are exposed to view” at venues serving alcohol.
Louisiana lawmakers passed it in 2016. Supporters said the measure was meant to keep young women from falling prey to human trafficking at strip joints. Neither U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who issued the injunction, nor the appeals panel that ruled Thursday denied that the state had a legitimate interest in doing so.
“Combining alcohol and erotic dancing has been found to be a combustible mix,” said the opinion written by Judge Leslie Southwick and joined by judges Edith Brown Clement and Carl Stewart.
But the appellate panel agreed with Barbier that the law as written is vague. Opponents had cited sections of state law that make it unclear how much of a young dancer’s breasts or buttocks must be covered.
That vagueness can “chill” constitutionally protected expression, Southwick wrote.
The appeals panel disagreed with Barbier’s finding that the law was overly broad. The district judge had raised the possibility that it could be interpreted to prohibit some theater or ballet performances. Southwick’s opinion noted that state officials had made clear that the statute would not be enforced against such traditional art forms.
But the vagueness issue was enough to block enforcement.
State Sen. Ronnie Johns, the Lake Charles Republican who sponsored the law, said he was disappointed with the ruling. He said lawmakers would likely try to address the issue again when they meet next April.