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Voyeur Dorm best left alone

From a female perspective, watching a stranger clean a sink, do homework, prepare a meal or sleep through the night has all the allure of watching grass grow. But the Voyeur Dorm Web site is not a product designed for the female perspective. It's for men, and in particular that breed of men who get their thrills by peeking in windows and seeing women remove their clothes.

For $34 a month, customers are connected via cyberspace to the home of five female college students. The house, located on a residential street in Tampa, is wired with 34 video cameras that cover almost every area of the house. Subscribers can watch as the young women eat, shower or watch television. The women are occasionally undressed, of course, but there is a no-sex policy for the cameras. It's a kind of Truman Show with pasties.

Until media reports identified the address, neighbors had no idea that there was anything unusual about the house or its occupants. It was completely unobtrusive. Even so, last month the Tampa Variance Review Board ruled that Voyeur Dorm is not a legitimate home occupation but an adult use business and must leave its current location.

The zoning issue is one that communities across the country will be confronting as home-based businesses grow in popularity and as the Internet becomes the marketplace of choice for sexually-oriented entertainment.

If reason and common sense prevail, cities will leave Voyeur Dorm and its progeny alone to prosper or founder as the marketplace demands. Given the pressing problems facing cities today, these Web sites deserve little more than a collective shrug and some pity for their pathetic patrons. But in a world where politicians and courts often go batty over issues surrounding adult material there is little reason to hope that government will quietly acquiesce.

Tampa wants to treat Voyeur Dorm as if it's a strip club. Actually, Voyeur Dorm has more in common with writers, artists, accountants, computer programers and others who run businesses from their homes. Unlike the local skin club, customers do not appear at the door of Voyeur Dorm's unremarkable beige stucco house. There is no commercial signage, no increased traffic, noise or use of city services as a result of its existence. In fact, Voyeur Dorm does not disrupt the residential character of the block in any tangible way.

Mark Dolan, attorney for Voyeur Dorm's corporate owner, says the company will appeal the adult use designation even beyond the City Council if necessary. I think it could be a national test case for the proposition that Internet-based adult-oriented businesses run entirely inside one's home are constitutionally protected and cannot be zoned away.

But it will have a few hurdles to jump first. Not the least of which is the current state of the law.

Right now zoning and free speech are in a dysfunctional marriage. Although the First Amendment protects sexually-oriented speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has said commercial zoning for movie theaters that show mainstream sex films such as Eyes Wide Shut can be different from those that offer something featuring Long Dong Silver. This disparate treatment is justified by the court's so-called "secondary effects" doctrine.

To justify the disparity in zoning restrictions, the court has said that cities can point to increased prostitution, crime, decreased property values and other undesirable effects of having adult businesses around. The cities aren't violating the First Amendment, said the court, because their intent isn't to eradicate the sexual speech itself but to eliminate the adverse impact the related effects can have on the community.

Saying cities can limit speech that causes bad results is a license to censor. Many communities have used this legal loophole to push adult shops out of business districts, relegating them to undeveloped land and industrial parks where they can't possibly relocate.

But what about an adult business such as Voyeur Dorm? It creates no increase in crime or prostitution in the neighborhood. There are no secondary effects. Should it then be subject to adult-use zoning?

Not if there's an honest appraisal of the law. It's clear that the Variance Review Board applied a set of old rules to a new breed of adult businesses. The old rules were designed to address a set of problems these new businesses don't present.

Cities such as Tampa may dig in their heels trying to expel Internet-based adult businesses, but they're going to butt up against the First Amendment in the process. Better that cities adopt the philosophy of all good neighbors: As long as you're not hurting anyone, whatever goes on in your own home is your own business . . . and that of anyone with $34 a month to spare.

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