Editorial: No grounds for bikini baristas to sue Everett

By The Herald Editorial Board

The legal arguments are nearly as skimpy as the bikini barista outfits they seek to protect.

Several baristas and the owner of a chain of coffee stands filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle over the city of Everett’s recent ordinances that established a dress code for bikini barista stands and other quick-service restaurants.

After years of trying to address problems with lewd conduct at some stands in Everett — including sexual performances and acts of prostitution in exchange for tips — the city adopted two ordinances: one updating its lewd conduct statutes and another directed at attire and conduct at the coffee stands.

The dress code requires baristas, male and female, to wear more modest attire, nothing more revealing than tank tops, shorts and skirts and forbidding the bikinis, lingerie and even pasties and g-strings worn by some. Rather than cite the barista for violating the dress code, the ordinance assesses a $250 fine against the stand’s owner for the first violation and requires the owner to get a probationary license to operate for a five-year period. Two or more violations would result in a $500 fine, another five years tacked onto the probationary license and possible revocation of the license.

In Monday’s 23-page complaint, the suit claims that the ordinances violate the baristas’ constitutional rights to free expression and — hold on to your grande Americano — privacy.

By ordering baristas to show less skin, the suit alleges, the ordinances prevent them from showing physical features, including tattoos and scars that prompt conversations and allow them to express “messages of freedom, empowerment, openness, acceptance, approachability, vulnerability and individuality.”

That’s probably more conversation than most of us want with our coffee, but it’s hard to see how the ordinances discourage communication between barista and customer.

The argument that the ordinances violate baristas’ privacy is woven from even thinner material.

The suit claims the city’s police officers would have to perform a “humiliating and intrusive” examination of baristas’ bodies to check for compliance. Schuyler Lifschultz, owner of Hillbilly Hotties stands, told The Herald in an email after the ordinances passed that baristas would be subject to having their buttocks and breasts checked and measured.

“You are literally requiring females to be stared at and prodded in order to keep their job!” Lifschultz wrote.

How gallant of Lifschultz and other stand owners to want to protect their employees from leering eyes. The irony burns as badly as a spilled cup of hot coffee.

Lifschultz’s argument is weak tea. The examination he imagines is an invention and is not outlined in either of the ordinances.

The lewd conduct ordinance is, admittedly, a double-shot of legalese. It defines one example of a lewd act as “an exposure of more than one-half of the part of the female breast located below the top of the areola, provided that the covered area shall be covered by opaque material and coverage shall be contiguous to the areola.” That’s the nature of ordinances, to be precise enough for clarity and avoid legal challenges.

But rather than send out cops with rulers, the city has said it will provide businesses with picture diagrams to illustrate the dress code and avoid any confusion.

Lifschultz and some of the baristas have claimed they are suing to protect women’s rights and free speech. The suit is truthfully about neither. The stand owners, in making the baristas the focus of their legal challenge, are exploiting their employees as they always have, using the same business model that they have previously profited from.

Everett city officials have passed ordinances that should now allow for enforcement of reasonable standards of dress and conduct in public. What’s allowable behind the doors of a strip club is not acceptable when visible from a coffee stand situated in a parking lot, a matter of feet from public sidewalks and streets.

And it’s simply not grounds for a lawsuit.

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