Stop dancing

A federal judge says there is no constitutional right to dance.

JAMPAC—GET BACK! On Monday, federal Judge Robert Lasnik's ruling dashed the hopes of the Joint Artists and Musicians Promotions Action Committee (JAMPAC) to quickly overturn the Teen Dance Ordinance. Instead, Lasnik affirmed city government's right to regulate recreational dancing by people of all ages. In the wake of the decision, City Hall is already debating what level of regulation is proper for teen dance halls.

In December 2000, after years of wrangling with City Hall, JAMPAC gave up negotiating and brought a lawsuit that sought to overturn the Teen Dance Ordinance on constitutional grounds. That strategy failed miserably this week.

In his ruling, Lasnik points out that in 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court very clearly stated, "We think the activity of . . . dance-hall patrons—coming together to engage in recreational dancing—is not protected by the First Amendment." The case in point concerned a law that restricted the "admission in dance halls to patrons who were between the ages of 14 and 18."

Ted Inkley, the assistant city attorney who argued the case, explains that the Supreme Court has made a distinction between "expressive dancing and dancing for the purpose of recreation." If "someone is up onstage, it's symbolic expression," and therefore protected by the Constitution, Inkley says. He adds, "Then you've got recreational dancing. It's not expressive," and not protected.

Evidently that's why even the right to perform a public striptease has been upheld by the courts, because it occurs in front of an audience and expresses a message. "Strippers are getting nude and portraying an 'erotic message,'" JAMPAC's lawyer, David Osgood, notes bitterly. Osgood is incredulous that strippers' acts have been constitutionally protected, but the right of people to express themselves by dancing with one another is not. "We do not agree," Osgood states. Angel Combs, JAMPAC's executive director, says the ruling will be appealed as soon as possible.

City Hall may make the whole ruling moot by repealing the Teen Dance Ordinance, however.

On Monday, Mayor Greg Nickels reaffirmed his willingness to sign a new law regulating teen dance halls. In the meantime, "I'll go home tonight and watch Footloose," the Kevin Bacon movie about a town that outlawed dancing, quips Nickels. The mayor has been waiting since the end of March for the City Council to act on a new, more liberal law that he proposed (it is almost identical to the All Ages Dance Ordinance passed by the city's legislators in 2000 but vetoed by former Mayor Paul Schell).

CITY COUNCIL President Peter Steinbrueck says now that the judge has ruled, he will move Nickels' proposal along in the political process. "I have the legislation right over there," Steinbrueck says, pointing to a stack of file folders.

He also made it clear that he considered JAMPAC's lawsuit an impediment to political change. "Our intention has always been to repeal and replace the Teen Dance Ordinance but not to do it under the strain and coercion of the lawsuit." Yet in spite of his pique over JAMPAC's tactics, Steinbrueck affirmed his support for the reform effort: "I hope it will move swiftly."

It is not clear, however, that reform will move along fast. Out of the nine council members, four (Richard McIver, Jim Compton, Jan Drago, and Margaret Pageler) are solidly opposed to sweep- ing changes.

Both The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have editorialized against liberalization of the regulation of teen dances. P-I columnist Susan Paynter mounted a one-woman crusade against loosening the rules the last time the council debated the subject.

The judge's ruling has bolstered the political forces opposed to reform.

"We are back to square one," council member Compton claims.

In addition, the leading exponent of reform, JAMPAC, has hurt its political clout by losing a prolonged court battle. Can JAMPAC once again claim a place at the table after storming out of the dinner party?

"JAMPAC is recognized as a fair and reasonable organization," claims Combs.

JAMPAC's director says she is optimistic, but she sounds wary. "Now there is a process [the City Council] has to go through. People might want to tweak [the mayor's new legislation]. They could start adding all kinds of things. It could end up looking a lot like the old Teen Dance Ordinance. Nothing would surprise me."

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