West Ada

Theater sues Idaho for threat to revoke liquor license over ‘50 Shades’

Meridian Cinemas operates the 15-screen theater at the Village at Meridian. The company has a license to sell liquor by the drink, beer and wine, which can be consumed in its restaurant or in nine theaters with designated 21-and-older “VIP” seating, which is sectioned off from general seating where no alcoholic beverages are served.
Meridian Cinemas operates the 15-screen theater at the Village at Meridian. The company has a license to sell liquor by the drink, beer and wine, which can be consumed in its restaurant or in nine theaters with designated 21-and-older “VIP” seating, which is sectioned off from general seating where no alcoholic beverages are served. Idaho Statesman file

The operator of the Village Cinema is suing the Idaho State Police for threatening to revoke the theater’s liquor license for serving alcohol while showing the R-rated movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” last February.

Idaho law prohibits places licensed to serve alcohol from showing movies that depict “acts or simulated acts of sexual intercourse” or “any person being touched or fondled” in areas including the breast and buttocks.

Meridian Cinemas LLC operates the 15-screen theater at the Village at Meridian. The company has a license to sell beer, wine and liquor by the drink. The drinks can be consumed in the theater’s restaurant or in nine theaters with designated 21-and-older “VIP” seating, which is sectioned off from general seating, where no alcoholic beverages are served.

According to a complaint filed Wednesday in federal court in Boise, an Idaho State Police Bureau of Alcohol Beverage Control detective told the cinema Feb. 17 that it would be violating state law if it served alcohol while showing a film depicting sex. The cinema responded by posting signs prohibiting the consumption of alcohol while “Fifty Shades” was being shown.

According to ISP’s revocation proposal, delivered to Meridian Cinemas on Dec. 21:

On Feb. 26, two undercover ISP detectives bought VIP tickets to “Fifty Shades.” While seated in the theater, the detectives ordered a Blue Moon beer and Bacardi Rum and Diet Coke from the waitress, who brought the drinks to them.

During the movie, one of the detectives went to the bar outside the auditorium and ordered another beer from a different waitress. She asked him which movie he was seeing. When he replied “Fifty Shades of Grey,” she said no alcohol was allowed in viewings of that movie and told him he would have to drink the beverage in the hallway.

The detective took the beer into the auditorium. The waitress followed him and told him no alcohol was allowed. Eventually, another employee came into the auditorium and asked to talk to the detectives about the alcohol policy and escorted the detectives into the hall.

ISP later told Meridian Cinemas it had served alcohol while showing “Fifty Shades” from Feb. 13 to 18 and on Feb. 26.

In its lawsuit, the cinema claims ISP’s attempt to revoke the cinema’s liquor license is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

The cinema’s lawyer, Jeremy Chou, cites a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that said it had been “clearly established that liquor regulations could not be used to impose restrictions on speech that would otherwise be prohibited under the First Amendment.”

Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker emailed the Statesman: “Alcohol Beverage Control is tasked with enforcing Idaho’s alcohol statutes as they are written. While we cannot comment on the specifics of this case, the statutes in place for the regulation and service of alcohol state that certain types of acts are prohibited in premises that are licensed for alcohol service.

“The display of sexual acts or nudity, whether live or on film, are prohibited when a premise is licensed for alcohol service,” she wrote. “Whether or not the statutes are valid is a question for the courts to determine.”

This Idaho law made national headlines in 2013. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter covered the story when The Flicks in Boise steered clear of the critically acclaimed, lesbian coming-of-age film “Blue is the Warmest Color.”

In 2007, the alcohol bureau told The Flicks that its two-decade-old practice of allowing beer and wine in the theater was illegal — even though the theater’s license had been reviewed and renewed throughout those years. The Legislature changed the law to allow the practice to continue.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

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