Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville
422 U.S. 205

Decided: June 23, 1975

MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents a challenge to the facial validity of a Jacksonville, Fla., ordinance that prohibits showing films containing nudity by a drive-in movie theater when its screen is visible from a public street or place.


Appellant, Richard Erznoznik, is the manager of the University Drive-In Theatre in Jacksonville. On March 13, 1972, he was charged with violating § 330.313 of the municipal code for exhibiting a motion picture, visible from public streets, in which "female buttocks and bare breasts were shown."  The movie, "Class of '74," had been rated "R" by the Motion Picture Association of America....Although there is nothing in the record regarding the content of the movie, the parties agree that it includes pictures of uncovered female breasts and buttocks.

The ordinance, adopted January 14, 1972, provides:

330.313 Drive-In Theaters, Films Visible From Public Streets or Public Places. It shall be unlawful and it is hereby declared a public nuisance for any ticket seller, ticket taker, usher, motion picture projection machine operator, manager, owner, or any other person connected with or employed by any drive-in theater in the City to exhibit, or aid or assist in exhibiting, any motion picture, slide, or other exhibit in which the human male or female bare buttocks, human female bare breasts, or human bare pubic areas are shown, if such motion picture, slide, or other exhibit is visible from any public street or public place. Violation of this section shall be punishable as a Class C offense.

Appellant, with the consent of the city prosecutor, successfully moved to stay his prosecution so that the validity of the ordinance could be tested in a separate declaratory action. In that action, appellee, the city of Jacksonville, introduced evidence showing that the screen of appellant's theater is visible from two adjacent public streets and a nearby church parking lot. There was also testimony indicating that people had been observed watching films while sitting outside the theater in parked cars and in the grass.

The trial court upheld the ordinance as a legitimate exercise of the municipality's police power, and ruled that it did not infringe upon appellant's First Amendment rights. The District Court of Appeal, First District of Florida, affirmed... The Florida Supreme Court denied certiorari, three judges dissenting. We noted probable jurisdiction, and now reverse.


Appellee concedes that its ordinance sweeps far beyond the permissible restraints on obscenity, and thus applies to films that are protected by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, it maintains that any movie containing nudity which is visible from a public place may be suppressed as a nuisance. Several theories are advanced to justify this contention.


Appellee's primary argument is that it may protect its citizens against unwilling exposure to materials that may be offensive. Jacksonville's ordinance, however, does not protect citizens from all movies that might offend; rather, it singles out films containing nudity, presumably because the lawmakers considered them especially offensive to passersby.

This Court has considered analogous issues -- pitting the First Amendment rights of speakers against the privacy rights of those who may be unwilling viewers or auditors -- in a variety of contexts.... Although each case ultimately must depend on its own specific facts, some general principles have emerged. A State or municipality may protect individual privacy by enacting reasonable time, place, and manner regulations applicable to all speech irrespective of content. But when the government, acting as censor, undertakes selectively to shield the public from some kinds of speech on the ground that they are more offensive than others, the First Amendment strictly limits its power. Such selective restrictions have been upheld only when the speaker intrudes on the privacy of the home, or the degree of captivity makes it impractical for the unwilling viewer or auditor to avoid exposure. As Mr. Justice Harlan cautioned:

The ability of government, consonant with the Constitution, to shut off discourse solely to protect others from hearing it is . . . dependent upon a showing that substantial privacy interests are being invaded in an essentially intolerable manner. Any broader view of this authority would effectively empower a majority to silence dissidents simply as a matter of personal predilections.

The plain, if at times disquieting, truth is that, in our pluralistic society, constantly proliferating new and ingenious forms of expression, "we are inescapably captive audiences for many purposes."  Much that we encounter offends our esthetic, if not our political and moral, sensibilities. Nevertheless, the Constitution does not permit government to decide which types of otherwise protected speech are sufficiently offensive to require protection for the unwilling listener or viewer. Rather, absent the narrow circumstances described above, the burden normally falls upon the viewer to "avoid further bombardment of [his] sensibilities simply by averting [his] eyes." 

The Jacksonville ordinance discriminates among movies solely on the basis of content. Its effect is to deter drive-in theaters from showing movies containing any nudity, however innocent or even educational. This discrimination cannot be justified as a means of preventing significant intrusions on privacy. The ordinance seeks only to keep these films from being seen from public streets and places where the offended viewer readily can avert his eyes. In short, the screen of a drive-in theater is not "so obtrusive as to make it impossible for an unwilling individual to avoid exposure to it." Thus, we conclude that the limited privacy interest of persons on the public streets cannot justify this censorship of otherwise protected speech on the basis of its content. 


Appellee also attempts to support the ordinance as an exercise of the city's undoubted police power to protect children. Appellee maintains that, even though it cannot prohibit the display of films containing nudity to adults, the present ordinance is a reasonable means of protecting minors from this type of visual influence.

It is well settled that a State or municipality can adopt more stringent controls on communicative materials available to youths than on those available to adults. Nevertheless, minors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection, and only in relatively narrow and well defined circumstances may government bar public dissemination of protected materials to them. 

In this case, assuming the ordinance is aimed at prohibiting youths from viewing the films, the restriction is broader than permissible. The ordinance is not directed against sexually explicit nudity, nor is it otherwise limited. Rather, it sweepingly forbids display of all films containing any uncovered buttocks or breasts, irrespective of context or pervasiveness. Thus it would bar a film containing a picture of a baby's buttocks, the nude body of a war victim, or scenes from a culture in which nudity is indigenous. The ordinance also might prohibit newsreel scenes of the opening of an art exhibit, as well as shots of bathers on a beach. Clearly all nudity cannot be deemed obscene, even as to minors.  Nor can such a broad restriction be justified by any other governmental interest pertaining to minors. Speech that is neither obscene as to youths nor subject to some other legitimate proscription cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them. In most circumstances, the values protected by the First Amendment are no less applicable when government seeks to control the flow of information to minors. Thus, if Jacksonville's ordinance is intended to regulate expression accessible to minors, it is overbroad in its proscription. 


At oral argument, appellee, for the first time, sought to justify its ordinance as a traffic regulation. It claimed that nudity on a drive-in movie screen distracts passing motorists, thus slowing the flow of traffic and increasing the likelihood of accidents.

Nothing in the record or in the text of the ordinance suggests that it is aimed at traffic regulation. Indeed, the ordinance applies to movie screens visible from public places, as well as public streets, thus indicating that it is not a traffic regulation. But even if this were the purpose of the ordinance, it nonetheless would be invalid. By singling out movies containing even the most fleeting and innocent glimpses of nudity, the legislative classification is strikingly underinclusive. There is no reason to think that a wide variety of other scenes in the customary screen diet, ranging from soap opera to violence, would be any less distracting to the passing motorist.

This Court frequently has upheld underinclusive classifications on the sound theory that a legislature may deal with one part of a problem without addressing all of it. This presumption of statutory validity, however, has less force when a classification turns on the subject matter of expression.

[A]bove all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.

Appellee offers no justification, nor are we aware of any, for distinguishing movies containing nudity from all other movies in a regulation designed to protect traffic. Absent such a justification, the ordinance cannot be salvaged by this rationale. 


Even though none of the reasons advanced by appellee will sustain the Jacksonville ordinance, it remains for us to decide whether the ordinance should be invalidated on its face. This Court has long recognized that a demonstrably overbroad statute or ordinance may deter the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. Nonetheless, when considering a facial challenge, it is necessary to proceed with caution and restraint, as invalidation may result in unnecessary interference with a state regulatory program. In accommodating these competing interests, the Court has held that a state statute should not be deemed facially invalid unless it is not readily subject to a narrowing construction by the state courts and its deterrent effect on legitimate expression is both real and substantial. See Broadrick v. Oklahoma (1973). 

In the present case, the possibility of a limiting construction appears remote. Appellee explicitly joined in this test of the facial validity of its ordinance by agreeing to stay appellant's prosecution. Moreover, the ordinance, by its plain terms, is not easily susceptible of a narrowing construction. Indeed, when the state courts were presented with this overbreadth challenge, they made no effort to restrict its application. In these circumstances, particularly where, as here, appellee offers several distinct justifications for the ordinance in its broadest terms, there is no reason to assume that the ordinance can or will be decisively narrowed. 

Moreover, the deterrent effect of this ordinance is both real and substantial. Since it applies specifically to all persons employed by or connected with drive-in theaters, the owners and operators of these theaters are faced with an unwelcome choice: to avoid prosecution of themselves and their employees, they must either restrict their movie offerings or construct adequate protective fencing which may be extremely expensive or even physically impracticable.


In concluding that this ordinance is invalid, we do not deprecate the legitimate interests asserted by the city of Jacksonville. We hold only that the present ordinance does not satisfy the rigorous constitutional standards that apply when government attempts to regulate expression. Where First Amendment freedoms are at stake, we have repeatedly emphasized that precision of drafting and clarity of purpose are essential. These prerequisites are absent here. Accordingly, the judgment below is reversed.