By MJ Kneiser, WLHR Radio, Lavonia
The case of the City of Lavonia’s long battle to close a topless bar is now being studied by law students.
Recently, the case of Cafe’ Risque was featured in a white paper and published in the Communications Law Review.
Written by Catherine Riley at TexasA&MUniversity, the paper documents how in 2001 the City of Lavonia was duped by strip club businessman Jerry Sullivan who received a business license from the Lavonia City Council after telling them he was opening up a BBQ sandwich shop. (http://commlawreview.org/Archives/v14i1/CLR_Billboard_Blight.pdf)
The night Sullivan received his license, he tore out the coffee shop style restaurant, bricked up the windows and opened a topless bar.
That began a long seven year battle between the city and Sullivan to shut his establishment down.
While the town lost most of their court cases because of the First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech, the paper concludes that Sullivan’s billboards on I-85 advertising Cafe’ Risque’ did the town more damage than the strip club itself.
City manager Gary Fesperman agrees.
“We know for a fact that through the years they were here we lost business,” he said. “People wouldn’t come here because of that topless bar. Not only did they have billboards from here to Atlanta, they had billboards all the way to the North Carolina line through South Carolina. That’s what we were fighting, the topless bar image.”
The white paper suggests, Lavonia attorneys should have focused more of their attention on pulling down the I-85 billboards than closing the Cafe’ Risque’, but Fesperman said the town’s attorneys pursued every legal avenue they could to try and shut the bar down.
“We were doing everything that we thought we could at the time to get the most we could for our money and get these billboards off the Interstate,” he said.
After Sullivan died in 2008, the town used a third party to buy the bar at twice its value, then tore the building down after holding a bonfire on the property to burn the sign and other items from inside the building.