Bill would keep strippers at least 6 feet from club patrons during performance

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina would be among a handful of states to institute a sweeping no-touch law for exotic dancers, if a bill introduced this week becomes law.

Under the proposal, exotic dancers could dance only on stages and would have to stay 6 feet away from strip club patrons while performing.

That means no lap dances -- a profitable type of dance for performers in which a patron is seated and the dancer is in immediate contact.

Tuesday, a panel of House lawmakers will revisit the bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg.

The bill's aim, Talley says, is to reduce the "secondary effects" associated with such clubs.

Illegal drugs and prostitution are common in clubs' private rooms, said Tennessee-based attorney Scott Bergthold, who drafted the legislation on behalf of the Palmetto Family Council.

It often spills out into the nearby community, he said, in the form of noise and loitering.

Laws similar to what is being proposed in South Carolina have held up on federal appeal, he said, including in Ohio and Tennessee.

But adult club advocates say the bill is about politics and not real problems.

"It's nothing but a cheap election year ploy," said Suzanne Coe, an S.C. attorney who has represented adult clubs for 14 years. "These clubs don't have all of this crime. It disgusts me that this is taking up the time and effort of our legislators instead of the real pressing issues that are facing South Carolina.

"And how would we logically enforce it? Am I supposed to make entertainers wear hula hoops?" she said.

At issue is what is -- and what is not -- protected by the U.S. Constitution and whether local government instead of states should take the dominant role in regulating adult businesses.

Bergthold argues the courts have ruled nude dance is a constitutionally protected form of expression.

"But when someone is doing a paid bump-and-grind in the VIP room, the courts have said that's not protected speech," he said.

Several club owners contacted by The State newspaper say they're reviewing the bill and are not commenting at this time.

But national advocates are speaking out, saying such bills are a covert way to shut down legitimate businesses.

"Bills such as this one are based on misinformation and misconceptions," said Diane Duke of the Free Speech Coalition, a California-based trade association for the adult entertainment industry.

"It imposes the misplaced morals of the minority onto the rest of us. Adult businesses are legal businesses held to a much higher standard, and time and time again they step up to meet the challenge. Make no mistake, this bill is designed to force the closure of these businesses. Adults have the right to be adults."

Bergthold disagrees.

"This is not going to impair (dancers') ability to perform erotic dance, which is protected by the Constitution," he said. "What it is going to impair is the flesh trade that has been documented in a lot of establishments in various parts of the country over many, many years."

Currently, local governments regulate sexually oriented businesses. For example, in Richland County, clubs must be at least 1,000 feet from schools and houses of worship.

In South Carolina, local control is critical because of tourism. For example, tourism-dependent coastal communities might have different views than other parts of the state on how sexually oriented businesses should operate.

Talley thinks this bill should be a starting point for regulating strip clubs in S.C.

"This bill would provide a statewide benchmark," Tally said. "If (local governments) want to do something even more restrictive, then they can have at it."