A federal judge has struck down Seattle's strip-club licensing ordinance — again — saying the city's failure to provide applicants with a deadline for obtaining a license violates the First Amendment protections of would-be club owners.
A federal judge has struck down Seattle’s strip-club licensing ordinance — again — saying the city’s failure to provide applicants with a deadline for obtaining a license violates the First Amendment protections of would-be club owners.
The ordinance was passed in 2005 after its predecessor was found unconstitutional in a lawsuit filed by businessman and onetime comedy-club owner Bob Davis. The city paid him $500,000 in damages in that lawsuit.
Davis is also behind the lawsuit that has resulted in this week’s federal court ruling, and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office acknowledges he may be eligible for damages from this case as well.
Davis won $350,000 from the city of Bothell in 2008 in a similar case.
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The ruling in Seattle this week by U.S. District Chief Judge Robert Lasnik came in a case filed by Davis in 2008, which claimed the city was obstructing his efforts to convert a Aurora Avenue North restaurant, Cyndy’s House of Pancakes, into a strip club. Davis challenged the city’s requirement that he obtain a license and comply with a zoning ordinance that requires “adult cabarets” to be sited away from schools, community centers, child-care centers and public parks.
Lasnik found the city’s current licensing ordinance — passed in 2005 after the last one was struck down by another judge — fails to provide applicants with a time frame in which the city must issue a license if its requirements are met. The upshot, the judge said, is that the ordinance could allow a city to delay issuing a license indefinitely.
In 2008, the city tried to fix the ordinance by adopting a policy saying it would notify applicants within 30 days, said Assistant City Attorney Carlton Seu. But Lasnik said those efforts fell short.
Lasnik said that policy isn’t the same as law, and that Davis’ “First Amendment rights should not depend on what is essentially a promise to act promptly in the future.”
The ruling comes after Davis has apparently abandoned his plans for Cyndy’s. His attorney, Kristin Olsen, said he waited more than 19 months to buy the property, which eventually was sold to someone else. He is asking the city pay him damages for lost business.
Olsen declined further comment, saying a number of issues remain before the court. Among them would be what damages, if any, Davis may be owed. Davis could not be reached for comment.
The courts have found strip clubs and other adult-entertainment businesses are a form of protected speech. They can be regulated but not banned outright.
Lasnik, however, upheld a key city zoning ordinance that requires clubs to be at least 800 feet away from schools, day-care facilities and public parks, and 600 feet from another adult club. Davis had argued that the ordinance so limited the places clubs could locate that “it effectively denies plaintiff an opportunity to open and operate within the city,” according to court documents.
Lasnik, however, said a conservative review of maps and other documents reveals space in the city for at least 75 new clubs, which he found was “more than sufficient to meet the existing or foreseeable demand for sexual speech in Seattle.”
Seattle has struggled to regulate strip clubs, and beginning in 1998 imposed a series of moratoriums on new building permits for clubs so onerous a federal judge in 2005 struck down the licensing requirements.
The city briefly considered restricting adult clubs to an area along the Duwamish, but that would have required wholesale changes to the zoning ordinance. The City Council then tried to impose a “4-foot rule,” setting a minimum distance between entertainers and customers, but that was rejected by voters in a 2006 referendum.
What the council wound up with was the flawed licensing ordinance — which requires applicants to get signoffs from the police, fire, health and planning departments — and the zoning ordinance setting distances that clubs must be from schools, day-care sites and parks.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org