Lawsuit challenges city ordinance aimed at preventing women under 21 from stripping

An Atlanta ordinance seemingly targeted to keep young women off strip-club stages also prohibits under-21 musicians from playing gigs at many of the city's music venues. It would, that is, if the measure were uniformly enforced.

So says adult-entertainment attorney Alan Begner, who recently filed a lawsuit challenging the city ordinance on behalf of five 19- and 20-year-old Cheetah dancers. Adopted by City Council last October, the ordinance is so broadly worded, Begner contends, that it forbids anyone below the age of 21 – employees, entertainers or otherwise – from entering a nightclub for any reason. Previously, nightclubs employees could be as young as 18.

"According to the clear and unambiguous language of the ordinance, it wouldn't allow an on-duty fireman or police officer into a club if he's under 21," Begner says.

The ordinance, introduced by Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, is, indeed, clear. It states: "No person under the age of 21 years shall enter, remain in or loiter on any premises licensed for the consumption of alcoholic beverages." It then references a list of places exempted from the measure, including restaurants, convenience stores, groceries, stadiums and breweries, leaving only nightclubs and bars affected by the under-21 ban.

Atlanta strip clubs, which serve alcohol, are classified as nightclubs. Unlike other nightclubs, however, all strip-club employees – from dancers and waitresses to bouncers and kitchen help – are required to obtain an adult-entertainment permit from the city. The permit costs $350 a year and includes a criminal background check.

When the ordinance was passed last fall, Begner threatened to sue on behalf of dancers who had already paid the permit fee and were in danger of being out that money. In response, he says, city officials agreed to allow dancers to work until their permits expired, but warned that the permits wouldn't be renewed if the women are still under 21. Neither Winslow nor the city attorney returned calls for this article.

As twentysomethings may recall, it was only in 2001 that Atlanta outlawed "under-21" clubs and, with them, the ubiquitous radio ads touting, "18 to party, 21 to drink." But there was no city or state law preventing folks between 18 and 21 from working at places where alcohol is served, or even tending the bar. In fact, Begner says, 18-year-olds have worked as strippers in Georgia since at least the mid-'70s.

Danielle Barbee, one of the five plaintiffs, decided to sue the city rather than leave her job at the Cheetah when her permit expires in June.

"I love working at the Cheetah," says the 19-year-old who began working as a nude dancer in another club when she was 18. "It's the classiest club in town."

Barbee says she uses her earnings to put herself through school at DeKalb Technical College and make car payments; she also recently signed an apartment lease.

It's because of people like Barbee that Councilman Ceasar Mitchell drafted an amendment to Winslow's legislation that would allow nightclub employees and entertainers with active permits to be "grandfathered" in under the ban.

"It seems a position of fairness and equity not to take away the jobs of people who are already working legally in nightclubs," Mitchell explains. "I'm in favor of eliminating underage drinking, but I have a concern that we're taking away people's livelihoods."

Introduced in November, Mitchell's proposal has languished in the council's Public Safety Committee, which Winslow chairs.

Even if it were approved, the measure wouldn't help new applicants for adult-entertainment permits, nor would it aid under-21 employees of regular nightclubs and bars, who don't need permits. So far, there's no sign that the city has cracked down on teenage barbacks or young nightclub DJs or bands that have members under the age of 21.

Begner says that's only more evidence that the ordinance is being selectively enforced.

"The law applies on its face to all nightclubs, but it's only practically applicable to adult clubs because the only way the city has of knowing who's under 21 is through adult-entertainment permits," he says, adding that a bartender in a regular bar or nightclub does not require a city permit.

Although the purported intent of the ordinance is to curb underage drinking, the fact that it seems aimed at strip clubs suggests a somewhat different objective. As part of Mayor Shirley Franklin's "Dear John" campaign to rid the city of child prostitution, a study was released last year that drew links between young women working in strip clubs and being forced into prostitution. A short time later, Winslow introduced the ordinance on behalf of Franklin's office.

Mitchell, who's also an attorney, says if that was indeed the goal of the ordinance, "I'm not sure this is the best way to address the problem of child prostitution."

Even if the intent is to stop minors from imbibing, Begner says adult clubs – which don't admit customers under 21 – are the wrong target.

"The place where most of the violations occur is at convenience stores, where teenagers are allowed to stock and sell beer," he says. "In the 25 years I've represented the adult industry in Atlanta, I've never seen a dancer busted for underage drinking."

In fact, Barbee says, the Cheetah is careful about making sure its young dancers do not drink on the job. "The club makes us take a Breathalyzer every night before we leave and we have to blow a triple zero," she says.

In cases where a customer wants to treat a dancer to a drink, Barbee adds, she has the option of asking for a "Cheetah Shot," which is nonalcoholic.

If the city did decide to enforce the ordinance as written, it would unearth another quirk of Atlanta's legal code. Because some places commonly considered nightclubs and bars actually hold restaurant licenses, they would not be affected. Therefore, a band with teenage members could play the Earl in East Atlanta, which has a full kitchen, but a teen DJ couldn't perform at MJQ, which is considered a nightclub.

Begner, who filed the lawsuit in Fulton Superior Court, says he hopes to get the city ordinance stricken from the books entirely, rather than amended to make its impact narrower in scope.

"There's a question that has not yet been answered in the state as to whether you can legally ban 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from doing anything," he says. "Other than drinking, that is."