Fighting for the Fig Leaf in Hampton
New Hampshire Seacoast Sunday, October 18, 1987
The recent effort by town officials in Hampton to shut down a male "exotic revue" at a Hampton Beach nightclub raises two issues that every community in the region should consider. First is the lack of local ordinances restricting such entertainment (Hampton has none), and the consistent failure of such restrictions to stand up in court.
Second, and perhaps most distressing, is the apparent ease with which officials at the New Hampshire Liquor Commission can license such entertainment without the consent or even knowledge of local officials.
If not for the Hampton controversy, neither issue would have surfaced as much of a local concern. But the fact that a male strip show is now staged regularly at Demitris Club 81, despite earlier license rejections by Hampton selectmen, must have people in neighboring towns wondering about the future. Route 1, with its busy commercial strip, is prime territory for a nightclub offering either male or female dancers, so towns up and down the Seacoast should watch what happens in Hampton carefully.
The state's obscenity statutes, which are extremely vague, prohibit performances that are obscene. Ultimately, the definition of obscene is left up to the courts, which usually base their decisions on commonly accepted standards in the community. Clearly, officials at the State Liquor Commission felt the male revue, as proposed, was not obscene.
The operators of male or female revues are often able to demonstrate that their shows are less offensive than what is readily available on video cassettes around the corner, on the nearby magazine rack, or even on the cable TV beamed into a majority of local households, all of which reflect what is already acceptable in a community.
It's easy to see why courts repeatedly reject outright bans on male or female exotic dancing, especially when total nudity is avoided. But towns can restrict the location of such entertainment through zoning, and with many towns now developing or revising zoning laws, such considerations shouldn't be overlooked.
The Hampton dance debate also alerted lawmakers to a gaping loophole that enables the state Liquor Commission to act as sole authority in licensing shows like Dimitris' male revue. Two Hampton representatives have co-sponsored legislation that would require the commission to inform towns of such applications, and honor the wishes of local officials who disapprove.
Even if the bill is made law, state officials will still be hard-pressed to deny applications that meet the test of "community standards," whether or not selectmen approve. Townspeople might be under the mistaken impression that they can ban such entertainment simply by voting to do so. As the Dimitris case illustrates, that's not always the case.
The male revue has been attracting fewer customers lately, and it will probably die a natural death, rather than spark the development of a combat zone on Ocean Boulevard. But Hampton may have to face the question again, and neighboring towns aren't immune. Town officials who haven't done their homework on obscenity statutes and precedents may be surprised to find out just how far courts have been willing to stretch the limits of community standards, in the interests of free speech.