It's one small step for Jersey's All-American Sports Club, one giant leap for Seattle nightclubs—and a big blow to City Attorney Mark Sidran. On June 29, a US District Court judge ruled that the state of Washington, the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and the city of Seattle cannot stop an establishment from hosting live entertainment based on its liquor license.
The decision strikes down the Liquor Board's 62-year-old requirement for an "added activities" permit—which any licensed club needed to host live music—and could put an end to the City Council's proposed added-activities ordinance for Seattle, spearheaded by Sidran.
"Sidran is going to have to get his club-closing tools elsewhere," says David R. Osgood, attorney for Jersey's.
As Seattle Weekly reported in March, Osgood and Jersey's owner Chris Clifford filed suit against the Liquor Board and the city of Seattle in 1996 because of what they perceived as unconstitutional restraints on freedom of expression. In May, Osgood moved for summary judgment, which asks a judge to rule immediately based on the facts.
On Tuesday, federal Judge John C. Coughenour did just that, concluding that the state, Liquor Board, and city rules violated the First Amendment right to free expression and amounted to a prior restraint on free speech. The decision will affect licensees not only in Seattle but throughout the state.
"It is a great ruling for bars, restaurants, and clubs statewide," Osgood said a half-hour after learning of the decision.
Liquor Board representatives downplay the ruling. Spokesperson Gigi Zenk notes that the board has been looking into automatically approving added activities when granting licenses.
The Liquor Board will keep poking its nose into clubs regardless. Zenk says that while it's too early to say what the ruling means, liquor agents still have to know what activities are taking place in a licensed establishment, and when they're taking place.
"We're not approving the activities," she explains. "We're approving the hours."
Still, it looks as though club owners will have greater freedom to host live music and dance events. And the ruling, currently being reviewed by the state attorney general and no doubt being scrutinized by city officials such as Sidran, hints that even when government doesn't approve of some activities, the law is the dominant power.
For evidence, keep an eye on the City Council and Sidran's proposed added-activities ordinance, which was idling in the council's Public Safety Committee when the decision was announced. Many say the ruling will kill the proposal. Within hours of the ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a memo to committee chair council member Tina Podlodowski, calling for an end to discussions about any Seattle ordinance governing added activities in nightclubs.
Sidran also fired off a memo, urging the City Council not to abandon the fight to retain control over nightclubs. "The court's order creates a regulatory vacuum and presents the City Council with a new policy choice," Sidran writes. He goes on to say that he'll send a new version of his added-activities proposal to the council soon, taking into account the court's ruling.
But one council member asserts that Sidran blew his chance. "It throws into question his legal judgment on a series of civility laws that he's been championing," council member Nick Licata says, alluding to teen dance and noise ordinance proposals for which the city attorney has fervently lobbied.
Podlodowski insists that discussions on those issues will proceed, but she questions whether the added-activities issue is relevant in light of the court decision. She points out that the judge reversed conventional wisdom, which had been that state law required local jurisdictions to set up a process for added-activities licenses to be approved and monitored. With the state law deemed unconstitutional, the council's role is thus optional.
"It seems that we don't need one," Podlodowski says of an added-activities ordinance. "The question is do we want one."
Osgood and Jersey's owner Clifford don't have time to ponder such philosophical questions. They're too busy planning a victory party and dance, partially benefiting the ACLU, to be held at the downtown nightclub July 10.