Bikini baristas turn men into Harvey Weinsteins, Washington city claims

It’s a battle of shirts versus skins.

Baristas, whose uniforms consist of bikinis, are heading to federal court on Tuesday to argue that their First Amendment rights have been violated by the suit-wearing officials in one Washington city who implemented two ordinances aimed at putting a lid on the coffee business.

Two recent directives, which were passed in August but have a moratorium in place until the baristas’ lawsuit is settled, tighten the city’s regulations on what constitutes lewd behavior and institutes a dress code that bans employees from wearing bikinis or showing too much bare skin. The laws are just the final straw in a years-long battle against bikini baristas stands.

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“The Constitution doesn’t allow the government to regulate the content of speech because the government disagrees with it,” Derek Newman, an attorney representing one of the baristas, told the Seattle Times. “If the First Amendment was so limited, NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality would not be protected expression because the president interprets this as anti-American sentiment.”

The city of Everett, about 30 miles north of Seattle, is home to numerous bikini barista espresso stands, where servers dressed in everything from tasteful two-piece swimsuits to pasties and G-strings serve up lattes and Americanos at a drive-thru window.

While Everett lawmakers have been steamed about the coffee stands for years – arguing everything from obscenity to mob ties – officials are taking a page out of the headlines and citing a new argument: The skin-flaunting coffee servers could turn men into the next Harvey Weinstein.

“The male gaze on bikinied women is on the continuum of sexualization of women,” wrote Mary Anne Layden, the director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology program at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert witness for the city of Everett. “When you make the body a commodity, and sex a product which you sell, one outcome is sexual violence... If you can sell it, you can steal it.”

Four years ago, Carmela Panico, the owner of a number of stands such as “Java Juggs” and “Twin Peaks,” pleaded guilty to prostitution and money-laundering charges. The city alleges that Panico and other stand owners model their businesses after strip clubs, where the baristas are encouraged to break the law and perform lewd shows for customers. Court documents say that some of the baristas make as much as $100,000 a year in tips alone.

Jovanna Edge, who co-owns five “Hillbilly Hotties” stands, denies that any illegal activity is encouraged and balks at the city’s claim that the stands -- with prices comparable to Starbucks -- attract crime or demean women. She added that without the bikinis, the baristas would not make as much money as they do.

“My business generates more money than a regular, non-bikini-barista, stand because my employees express themselves through their manner of dress,” Edge said. “By wearing a bikini, my employees expose messages through tattoos and scars, and they are able to open conversations that attract customers willing to pay more at my business than other coffee stands.”

The baristas also say that their rights are being impinged upon and instead of feeling degraded when wearing a bikini, they feel empowered.

“This is about women’s rights,” coffee server Natalie Bjerk said, according to the Daily Star. “The city council should not tell me what I can and cannot wear when I go to work; it’s a violation of my First Amendment rights.”