Amelia Powell, who has worked as a bikini barista, talks to reporters. (Rikki King / The Herald)

Amelia Powell, who has worked as a bikini barista, talks to reporters. (Rikki King / The Herald)

Judge critical of both sides’ arguments in Everett bikini barista case

She will determine whether the city’s dress code suppresses free speech — or deters crime.

SEATTLE — The city of Everett says serving coffee in a g-string is a gateway to sex work and exploitation.

Bikini baristas counter their outfits are works of art. They say they’re using their First Amendment rights to share positive messages about their bodies while they earn a living.

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman at a hearing Tuesday raised questions critical of both sides’ arguments. The bikini baristas want her to throw out Everett’s new rules that ban their business model. The city decided earlier this year that workers in coffee shops and other quick-service restaurants must wear a minimum of tank tops and shorts.

The city has said it won’t enforce the rules pending the outcome of the court case. Pechman expects to issue an order in the next couple of weeks.

Everett may need to rewrite the ordinances to more directly target the business model, rather than the clothing, the judge said. She suggested other approaches, such as requiring the stands to record customers and their license plates, or to install better lighting.

Clothing can be linked to free speech, such as the pink knit hats that became popular with protesters after the 2016 presidential election, Pechman said. The public’s ideas around decency aren’t static, she said.

“The mores change,” she said. “Why does the city of Everett want to change what the mores are?”

Yet the judge also didn’t seem to accept wholesale the plaintiffs’ claims they primarily are focused on art and expression. If that were so, the baristas wouldn’t mind if tips were outlawed, she said, asking, “Is it the message or the money?”

In addition, the judge questioned whether the city’s ordinances are too vague. Some of the terms used to describe body parts aren’t in the dictionary, and a diagram might be needed to determine compliance, she said.

Derek Newman, an attorney representing the baristas, agreed.

“It’s not always clear where a breast begins and ends,” he said.

Everett has turned to civil measures to target misbehavior by baristas and customers because the criminal investigations exhaust police resources, said Sarah Johnson, an attorney hired by the city.

A  bikini hut is the drive-thru version of a strip club, she said. The women are isolated, nearly naked and motivated to maximize their income, she said. 

“The attire here is the same …,” she said. “Changing the clothing will eliminate that conduct.”

“I don’t see any similarity,” Newman said.

About a half-dozen baristas attended Tuesday’s hearing, including Amelia Powell, who told reporters the job is a better option for women than being a dancer or an escort. The pay has allowed her to work fewer hours and to improve her grades, she said.

“It comes down to the issue of economic opportunity,” she said.

The judge’s order is expected to say whether Everett can enforce the rules for the time being. Future hearings are likely for other contested issues in the case.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rikkiking.

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