Tit for Tat

The juices are flowing in a battle between Federal Heights and its only strip club.

There were a lot of long faces dragging around the parking lot outside Bare Essence on August 18. One hundred and fifty dudes, ages eighteen through twenty, were surprised to learn that the age requirement to get into the Federal Heights strip joint had been jacked up to 21 overnight -- the latest fallout from an ongoing lawsuit between the city and the club.

In December 1997, four weeks after Bare Essence opened for business, the seven-member Federal Heights City Council had passed an ordinance banning the under-21 crowd from entering the city's sole den of desire. But since Bare Essence doesn't serve alcohol -- it bills itself as a "juice bar" -- the age requirement seemed unfair and unconstitutional to the owners. After all, dry nudie bars in Denver and Sheridan allow eighteen-year-old patrons. The ordinance also raised the age of erotic dancers eligible to work at the club from eighteen to 21.

Bare Essence immediately sued the city, which decided to voluntarily withhold enforcement of the ordinance until U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch could rule on it. On June 9, Matsch's decision finally came down, with both camps receiving some unwelcome news. First, Matsch sided with the city, finding that municipalities maintain the right to keep strip-club patrons waiting outside until they turn 21. Then he ruled in favor of Bare Essence, concluding that the dancers inside the club only have to be eighteen. About ten of the women currently dancing at Bare Essence are under 21.

Club owner Mark Salmon was confused by Matsch's dual reasoning: "So what the judge is saying," he wonders, "is that if a girl who is in here dancing is eighteen years old, it's fine, but if she looks at her pussy in the mirror, she should go to jail?"

For Matsch, apparently, the distinction was that while erotic dancing is worthy of constitutional protection, watching it is not. "The First Amendment protects expressive conduct and the Supreme Court has constantly held that erotic dancing is expressive," the judge wrote in his decision. "Thus, the ordinance is a direct denial of the freedom of expression only because of age.

"Limiting the age of the audience is a different matter," he continued. "There is a qualitative difference between the First Amendment prohibition of governmental restrictions on speech, including expressive conduct, and an asserted right to hear or view the speaker or performer."

Needless to day, Matsch's legalese didn't go over well with the dudes heading back to their cars outside Bare Essence last month. "We'll fight this!" yelled one baseball-capped collegian. And he's not the only one eager for a scrap.

"Our constituents want Bare Essence run out of town," says mayor pro tem Sharon Richardson, who has served on the city council for nine years and helped draft the original ordinance. Several years ago, she explains, a mother complained to her about visible nudity on porn video boxes and magazines inside convenience stores around town; since then, Richardson has been crusading to rid the town of smut.

But Matsch's split decision has made unlikely bedfellows of Richardson and Salmon: Both agree the ruling came as a disappointing contradiction. Then again, "so are our state laws," Richardson says. "They let eighteen-year-olds serve liquor."

Since the city informed Salmon that it would begin keeping eighteen-year-olds out of his club -- unless they're sliding up and down a pole, of course -- the business owner says he's been harassed, albeit reluctantly, by the city's cops. On the first night of the crackdown, three police officers arrived at Bare Essence to serve outstanding warrants on two of Salmon's dancers for unrelated legal problems. Salmon sees a warning in the timing of the workplace arrests: "They were sending a message that they weren't playing around with this one," he says.

In turn, Salmon is using his employees and customers to deliver his own message. Bare Essence bouncers had to turn away nearly 500 underaged patrons three weekends ago, about 40 percent of the club's business, but the doormen didn't let the boys leave empty-handed -- they gave them yellow fliers listing the home phone numbers of city council members and encouraged them to give those elected officials a mouthful, though a sanitized one. "Please keep your comments clean and to the point," the flier reads. "You will not help us or your cause if you use foul language or inappropriate behavior. Be sure to let them know that you are an adult and be sure to register to vote!" (Richardson has seen the fliers but claims she hasn't received a single phone call.)

Later in the week, Salmon, his managers and six dancers spread out across the tiny city and collected 200 signatures in preparation for an effort to recall Richardson and the rest of the city council (the door-to-door activists also registered 150 new voters). Only three people refused to sign the petition, Salmon says, and only one was downright opposed to his plan. In the last municipal election in Federal Heights, 467 people voted; it takes signatures from only 25 percent of that total to get a recall rolling. "We got all those signatures in just under eight hours of work," Salmon notes.

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