Freedom of speech or destructive “sexual self-objectification”? A federal judge Tuesday will hear arguments in the challenge to the constitutionality of two Everett city ordinances aimed at covering up bikini baristas.
Arguing that skimpy costumes and exposed flesh are an expression of the First Amendment, owners and employees of bikini barista stands in Everett are asking a federal judge for an injunction that would prevent the city from implementing two new ordinances aimed at curtailing the business.
“The Constitution doesn’t allow the government to regulate the content of speech because the government disagrees with it,” Derek Newman, one of the baristas’ attorneys, wrote in an email. “If the First Amendment was so limited, NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality would not be protected expression because the president interprets this as anti-American sentiment.”
The city has countered, in thousands of court documents, by alleging that the stands breed a “proliferation of crimes of a sexual nature” and in the past have had ties to the notorious Colacurcio organized-crime family. The city claims the scantily clad baristas feed the poisonous attitudes toward women that have led to allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and comedian Louis C.K.
“The male gaze on bikinied women is on the continuum of sexualization of women,” wrote Mary Anne Layden, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology program at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been hired by the city of Everett as an expert witness.
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Layden, in a sworn, 31-page declaration, points out that the costumes worn by the baristas are rarely actually bikinis, but are more in line with the outfits worn by strippers and intended to titillate.
She suggests the women at the coffee stands are less engaged in self-expression and making coffee drinks than they are in destructive “sexual self-objectification” that has a wider impact on the community. She cited studies showing that men often think less of women for dressing suggestively or engaging in behaviors like exotic dancing.
Men who visit the stands can take those attitudes into the community and their homes, Layden claims.
“When you make the body a commodity, and sex a product which you sell, one outcome is sexual violence,” she wrote. “If you can sell it, you can steal it.”
The baristas, in a lawsuit filed against the city, are challenging two ordinances enacted by the city: One tightens city regulations proscribing lewd behavior, and the other amounts to a dress code banning bikinis and some bare skin, including shoulders, midriffs and buttocks.
The baristas claim their outfits and jobs are tied to “freedom, empowerment, openness, acceptance, approachability, vulnerability, and individuality,” according to Newman. Moreover, he said the message really doesn’t matter as much as whether they have the right to deliver it.
The plaintiffs, including seven baristas and an owner of a chain of bikini coffee stands, also argue that their right to privacy would be violated if officers were to inspect them to ensure that they were following the rules.
The city’s lawyers argue that the First Amendment “protects speech, not the right to dress in a particular manner,” including “pasties and a G-string, the most common outfit at issue.”
The baristas’ attempts to “shoehorn their state of undress into the realm of expressive conduct” fails, the city alleges, partly because they fail to take into account the public harm caused by the businesses, including “prostitution, violence, organized criminal activity and exploitation of women including minors.”
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman has scheduled arguments on the motion for an injunction Tuesday in Seattle, where she is presiding over the baristas’ challenge to the constitutionality of the two city ordinances.
The Everett City Council unanimously passed the ordinances in August; however, it agreed to a moratorium on their enforcement pending the outcome of Tuesday’s hearing.
The city, in its argument against the injunction, cites a decadelong struggle with the impact of the bikini barista drive-up coffee stands, including the arrest four years ago of the owner of several stands with names like “Java Juggs” and “Twin Peaks,” along with a corrupt Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant who had been tipping her off to police surveillance and stings in exchange for sexual favors.
That stand owner, Carmela Panico, drew the attention of the FBI because of her ties to Talents West, operated by the late strip-club owner Frank Colacurcio Sr., whose business empire was dismantled after a multiyear federal investigation. Panico worked for Talents West and had been a stripper in Colacurcio’s clubs, according to court documents.
Panico eventually pleaded guilty to prostitution and money-laundering charges, cooperated with police and forfeited $215,000 cash found when police searched her home, according to court records. She is not a party to the challenge.
The city alleges Panico and now others — including plaintiff Jovanna Edge, who co-owns five “Hillbilly Hotties” stands in Snohomish County — modeled their businesses on strip clubs. The baristas who attract the most business — often by performing lewd “shows” for customers — are rewarded and encouraged to break the law, the city claims.
According to court documents, some baristas say they’ve made as much as $100,000 in tips in a year.
Edge, in a sworn declaration, denies she encourages illegal activity and disputes the city’s claims that the bikini stands attract crime or undermine attitudes toward women. Her regular customers, she said, “are all well-behaved, and the interactions aren’t about sex.”
Most, she said, are “super nice” and “with very few and far between exceptions, there aren’t any creepy people who come to Hillbilly Hotties barista stands.”
“My business generates more money than a regular, non-bikini-barista stand, because my employees express themselves through their manner of dress,” Edge wrote. “By wearing a bikini, my employees expose messages through tattoos and scars, and they are able to open conversations that attract customers willing to pay more at my business than other coffee stands.”
Edge claims the city’s ordinances would adversely impact her baristas’ earning potential.
“And by dressing in more clothes than a bikini, my employees wouldn’t be able to express themselves in a manner that attracts the higher paying customer,” she wrote.