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Bikinis, Coffee and Strippers: Just Another Day in the Ninth Circuit

What do bikinis, coffee and strippers have in common?  Nothing except for the fact that they all play a role in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Edge v. City of Everett, 929 P.3d 657(2019).  Edge takes us to Washington, the land of bikini barista coffee stands, where women wear next to nothing (and sometimes nothing) while serving coffee at road side stands.   After the City of Everett enacted ordinances requiring the baristas to wear a few more inches of fabric, several of the baristas complained that the City of Everett had unconstitutionally infringed on their freedom of expression under the First Amendment.  The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

THIS JUST IN: STRIPPING IS PROTECTED BY THE FIRST AMENDMENT

That actually is not just in, but it is new information to me.  Since the 1970’s, SCOTUS has protected stripping as a freedom of expression under the First Amendment. 

The First Amendment is the constitutional amendment that protects “freedom of speech.”  U.S. Const., amd. I.  Although the text of the amendment only refers to “speech,” SCOTUS has long held that the First Amendment’s protections extend to both orally expressed statements and physically “expressive conduct” that is used to communicate something to another person.  Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293 (1984).

In California v. LaRue, 409 U.S. 109 (1972), SCOTUS applied this logic to uphold California’s legislation barring liquor in strip clubs.  Noting that the First Amendment freedom of expression had been extended to motion pictures and theatre performances, and that stripping was, in some cases, basically a really erotic theatre performance, SCOTUS found that strippers do have some limited First Amendment rights.  Id. But, because California sought to regulate liquor sales rather than the actual um, performance, the California law was upheld.  Id.

In Schad v. Borough of Mount Ephraim,452 U.S. 61 (1981), SCOTUS again noted that nudity does not exclude conduct from the protection of the First Amendment.  Id. In Schad, SCOTUS found that a local ordinance attempting to ban an adult bookstore from allowing a live nude dancer was unconstitutional.  Id.

This does not mean that strippers have a carte blanche right to roam about dancing in the nude.  As SCOTUS explained in Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., 501 U.S. 560 (1991), the states still have the right to enact laws limiting when and where public nudity may occur and/or requiring strippers to wear “scant clothing” while dancing.  Id. at 571.  Barnes concerned an Indiana law banning all nudity in strip clubs, but allowing dancers to wear pasties and a g-string.  Id.  Reasoning that states can regulate morality provided that the state’s interpretation of “moral” conduct does not completely prohibit protected expressive conduct, SCOTUS upheld the state law. Id.  Since the dancers could still dance, and since the clothing required gave the audience the basic gist of nudity, the Indiana law was fine. 

These were family establishments after all.  We must have some standards. 

(Kidding. These were actually just strip clubs with no minors allowed). 

BUT, “BIKINI BARISTAS ARE NOT STRIPPERS”

According to the Bikini Baristas, they are not strippers.  Strippers wear little to no clothing in exchange for tips.  Bikini Baristas, in contrast, wear little to no clothing in exchange for tips. 

Wait a minute. 

I think we need to start from the beginning with this one. 

THERE’S CORRUPTION IN THIS COFFEE STANDS

If you are like me, you may not have ever heard of a bikini barista.  Seriously, I’ve learned so much today.  A bikini barista wears a “bikini” while serving coffee at a road side coffee stand. 

In Washington.  Which is not exactly known for balmy weather. 

If that sounds like a recipe for prostitution and trafficking . . . well, it is.  After receiving complaints that the baristas had a pretty fast and loose term for the phrase “bikini” and that patrons observed physical contact with customers occurring, the City of Everett mounted an undercover police investigation.  Edge, 929 F.3d at 660-61.  The police discovered that many of these road side coffee stands were fronts for prostitution and trafficking, that many of the baristas were paid solely in tips and encouraged to wear little or no clothing for larger tips, and that assaults frequently occurred.  Id. at 661. This undercover operation lasted for five years, and after five years, the Everett police were unable to solve the problems the coffee stands presented with the means available to them.  Id. Partially because they discovered that a sheriff deputy was involved in covering up one of the coffee prostitution rings (he’s been convicted, it’s all fine now). 

Anyway, after five years, the Everett police told the City that the bikini baristas were the City’s problem to solve.  And the City responded by, among other things, creating a dress code ordinance for the stands that required the baristas to wear more.  Id. at 662. 

THE BIKINI BARISTAS SUE FOR THEIR RIGHT TO BARE IT ALL

After the City’s enactment of the new dress code ordinance, several bikini baristas (and an owner of a stand) sued the City and argued, among other things, that the City’s dress code ordinance unconstitutionally infringed on their freedom of expression.  According to the baristas, the bikini (or whatever they were or were not wearing) was a symbol of “female empowerment” because it celebrated the female body and made women seem “approachable.”  Id. at 662-64.  The trial court agreed with the bikini baristas that the dress code ordinance might infringe their freedom of expression, and entered an order temporarily enjoining the City from enforcing the dress code while the lawsuit was pending. Id. at 664. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

The  Ninth Circuit explained that protected freedom of expression requires that the “expressive conduct” convey a specific message for which there is a great likelihood that it will be understood by those to whom it is being conveyed.  Id. at 668. For example, SCOTUS has protected the rights of protestors to wear “F—- the Draft” shirts, Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 18 (1971), and black arm bands to protest the Vietnam war.  Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 505-06 (1969). 

In contrast to the situations in which SCOTUS has protected freedom of expression, the bikini barista’s claim arose in a commercial setting.  The Ninth Circuit found that “the commercial setting and close proximity to the baristas’ customers makes the difference” because the “baristas’ act of wearing pasties and g-strings in close proximity to paying customers” where the “baristas indisputably solicit tips . .. creates a high likelihood  that the message sent by the baristas’ nearly nonexistent outfits vastly diverges from” the messages of “female empowerment” the baristas claimed to be sending.  Edge, 929 F.3d a 669.  In other words, the message conveyed may have been one of empowerment, but the message received was most likely “give me more money.”  And, given the high rates of prostitution, trafficking and assault found by the City’s police department, the “empowerment” part of the message was clearly lost in translation. Id.

IT MIGHT BE DIFFERENT IF THEY WERE STRIPPERS

Although the Ninth Circuit found that the bikini baristas will have a hard time prevailing on their freedom of expression claim, it did throw them a bone.  To paraphrase the gist of what Judge Christen was hinting at in the opinion:

Hey, bikini baristas, you keep claiming that you are not strippers, and therefore, we cannot find a constitutional basis to protect your claimed freedom of expression.  But if you were to say that you are strippers – you know, those other women who take their clothes off for tips just like you – maybe we could talk. 

Clearly the moral of this story is to claim you are a stripper, even if it subjects your employer to all kinds of zoning violations.