The city's new ordinances effectively ban bikini baristas, but attorneys for the plantiffs say fighting the law is not about coffee or bikinis. "It's about women's rights and the U.S. Constitution. The City of Everett violated these women's rights across the board," said one attorney.
A group of bikini baristas filed a lawsuit Monday against the city of Everett, alleging that two recently passed ordinances banning bikinis and bare skin — including bare shoulders, bare midriffs and bare buttocks — on restaurant employees, violate their constitutional rights to free expression and the right to privacy.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, claims that the ordinances, which were passed unanimously by the City Council last month, deny bikini-stand employees the ability to communicate and express themselves through their choice of swimwear, infringe on their right to privacy and deny them due process.
“This is not about the bikini,” said attorney Schuyler Lifschultz, “It’s about women’s rights and the U.S. Constitution. The City of Everett violated these women’s rights across the board.”
The suit asks the federal court to declare unconstitutional the ordinances which went into effect on Sept. 5.
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Spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said the city would not be commenting on the lawsuit at this time.
The plaintiffs, including seven baristas and an owner of a chain of bikini coffee stands, argue in the suit that their right to privacy would be violated if officers were to inspect them to ensure that they were following the rules.
“The Ordinances, on their face violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; are unconstitutionally vague, as applied and in violation of the due process guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment. The ordinances also deprive the Baristas of their Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and discriminate against women,” lawyers for the baristas said in a statement released Monday.
“The city knows only women work as bikini baristas, and intentionally targeted women through the ordinances,” said Derek Newman, one of the attorneys for the baristas.
Barista Natalie Bjerk says, “This is about women’s rights. The city council should not tell me what I can and cannot wear when I go to work, it’s a violation of my First Amendment rights.”
The plaintiffs claim that wearing minimal clothing allows them to show their tattoos, scars and other physical features that prompt conversations with customers about life experiences and personal choices that would not otherwise occur. They also claim that wearing bikinis allows them to “express messages of freedom, empowerment, openness, acceptance, approachability, vulnerability and individuality” that they would not otherwise be able to convey.
“These ordinances set back women’s rights by 50 years,” plaintiff Leah Humphrey said in a statement released Monday.
Some employees also have said they’re concerned that they’ll make less in tips — or lose their jobs entirely — with the new dress code.
The Everett City Council unanimously enacted two ordinances Aug. 16 dictating a dress code banning bare midriffs, exposed shoulders, shorts or bikinis in quick-serve food and beverage businesses. The ordinance requires that owners ensure that employees cover “minimum body areas” while on duty. That includes the breasts, torso and the top 3 inches of legs below the buttocks, according to the ordinance.
The city has said it will provide picture diagrams to help illustrate the new requirements, but essentially employees will be required to wear at least shorts and a tank top. Owners found violating the new dress code will be required to obtain a probationary license. With two additional violations, their business could be shut down.
The new laws effectively abolish the bikini-barista business model in Everett.
The move followed what city officials called a proliferation of crimes occurring at local bikini-barista stands. Previously, Everett officials used the city’s lewd-conduct ordinance to regulate conduct at the stands, but that provided “little deterrent” to bad behavior, the ordinance states.
Ramsey Ramerman, assistant city attorney, said last month that the new ordinance also prevents unscrupulous owners from pressuring employees into breaking the law.
“This is not about being offended by people wearing bikinis,” he said. “Some of these stands had the characteristics of a poorly run strip club, and trying to enforce standards under the previous law was simply ineffective.”
Everett officials have struggled for years over how to regulate drive-through stands staffed by scantily clad women. They came under scrutiny in 2009, when several female employees of local coffee stands were arrested for indecent exposure and prostitution charges after a lengthy undercover police investigation.
The baristas were accused of charging $80 for erotic shows where they allowed customers to fondle or photograph them.
The “sexpresso” stand trend eventually spread throughout the region, with some cities banning them altogether.
The lawsuit claims that the Everett ordinance is poorly written, vague and nearly impossible for an ordinary person to understand. For example, the suit claims, city ordinance 3559-17 prohibits women from exposing “more than one-half of the part of the female breast located below the top of the areola” and the “bottom one-half of the anal cleft.”
For the city to enforce the law, officers would have to perform a “humiliating and intrusive” examination of suspect’s naked breasts to ascertain where the areola is and how much of the breast, relative to it, is exposed, the suit claims.
“It is unlikely that most citizens would be able to determine the location of their anal cleft, as it is not a term used in everyday speech and has varying definitions on the internet,” the suit claims.
Liberty Ziska, another barista involved in the lawsuit, said she should be able to wear what she wants to work.
“I choose my own clothing at work, and for me, the message I send is freedom,” she said. “Millions of women fought for our rights and right to vote, and it’s my right to wear what I want. It’s my right as a person.”
Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.