A six-year fight over whether to allow a strip club to open in the liberal southwestern Ohio college city of Athens is set to go to trial before a federal jury in Columbus next month.
Since 2007, Demetrios Prokos and Christopher Stotts have been trying to open a strip club along a main drag just north of the Ohio University campus in Athens.
The strip club-free city has stopped them at every step.
“We don’t legislate morality, and the First Amendment needs to be protected,” said Louis Sirkin, the Cincinnati attorney who represents the businessmen and argues that Athens has been violating his clients’ constitutional rights to freedom of speech.
Chuck Curley, the Columbus attorney representing the city of Athens, declined to comment.
He has argued in court documents that the city did not violate the rights of Prokos and Stotts, the owner and renter, respectively, of the property where they want to open the strip club.
The trial is set for Jan. 13 in federal court in Columbus.
The fight began almost the day that Prokos and Stotts first applied for a permit to open the strip club Dec. 17, 2007.
The city’s zoning board denied them three separate times after lengthy meetings and a wave of negative reactions from dozens of area residents who wrote letters, sent emails, called officials and spoke publicly against allowing the strip club to move forward.
“To bring such a club like this to our community will take away what we have been known for, as one of the best-known small towns in the United States — the sense of community and camaraderie that we have here,” said Francine Childs, an area resident.
Neighbor Bic Weissenrider said a strip club would be “totally out of character” with the neighborhood and that: “I could flat promise you that having that across the street from us will cause detriment to our values.”
Zoning members themselves expressed concerns about immorality and crime and how the strip club would affect nearby businesses, including a newly opened bank, and the neighborhood, which includes a nearby elementary school.
Prokos and Stotts appealed the zoning board’s decisions in Athens County Common Pleas Court, and in June 2010, a judge threw out the board’s denial of a permit for the strip club.
Ohio’s 4th District upheld that decision in May 2011, finding that board members are not allowed to consider a business’s morality, just whether it is a permitted use under zoning laws.
“Instead of focusing only on what uses were allowed by the code, the board indicated that its decision was based largely on what kind of businesses were already in the area,” according to the appeals court decision. “The board was equally mistaken to the extent that its decision was based on whether the proposed use was appropriate for the community.”
After the federal civil-rights lawsuit was filed against the city shortly after, Judge Algenon Marbley denied a request by the city to throw the case out in September, ruling that nude dancing is considered “expressive conduct” that falls under First Amendment protections.
Sirkin expressed confidence in winning the upcoming jury trial for his clients.
“We’re a government of laws, not of men,” he said. “We believe the laws supports the position that my clients have a right to open up a club, and they’ve had that right since 2007.”