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THE ODD COUPLE

Right-Left Combo Tries to Deck Sidran

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Erika Langley
LAST WEEK, ATTORNEY DAVID OSGOOD AND CLUB owner Chris Clifford took their campaign against Mark Sidran and the liquor board to federal court. They are challenging a Prohibition-era Washington law, in a move that could foil Sidran's two-year quest to pass a controversial new Seattle club law.

From the beginning, Sidran has held that his "added activities" ordinance is required by state law. The state law, imported from Canada 60 years ago at the end of Prohibition, holds that any business with a liquor license must get permission from local government to host music, dance, or other entertainment. If Osgood and Clifford succeed--and the state law is ruled unconstitutional--Sidran's case for more oversight of the city's club scene will be on thin ice.

Osgood is a 32-year-old lawyer who co-founded the University of Washington's ACLU chapter in 1994, and served for a while as president of the law school's lesbian and gay association. Just three years out of law school, he is best known for representing clubs that Sidran has tried to shut down. He even half-jokes about a platform to de-throne Sidran as City Attorney: no more "civil society" laws that beat up on the poor, a civilian review board to oversee investigations of the Seattle police, and if Law Department employees feel they need to organize a union, then let them.

"I actually like the guy," says Osgood of Sidran. "I think he should be mayor--of Singapore."

As an openly gay ACLU lefty, Osgood would seem to have little in common with his anti-Sidran colleague Clifford, a Republican who is a frequent guest on KVI "hate radio." Clifford once stated on the air that one member of the liquor board got the job because he is gay, and another because he's Hispanic and in a wheelchair. But Clifford and Osgood work well together, both in court and behind the scenes.

Ever since the city and the liquor board cracked down on Clifford's club, Jersey's All American Sports Bar, in the early '90s, the former Republican Party staffer has been bringing together allies from all over the political map to rail against Sidran's arrogance and the liquor board's ignorance. He's forged strong alliances with Seattle's minority leaders (Jersey's played rap and hiphop and drew heavy attention from the cops), sued the city in federal court, organized public hearings, and generally done everything in his power to make life hell for the liquor board in Olympia and Sidran in Seattle. Jersey's is still open, as is its offshoot, the 700 Club, but both are on the ropes as the liquor board tries to take away Clifford's license.

In court last week, Osgood argued that any law prohibiting music and dancing is inherently unconstitutional--"a classic definition of a prior restraint" on free speech. The only reason it's remained a law for 60 years, Osgood said, is because nobody has challenged it.

Prior restraint means the government curbs free expression before the expression can occur. Denying a license to a hiphop club for "public safety reasons" would be an example.

Towering before Osgood was John C. "Mad Dog" Coughenour, the Harley-driving federal judge who is notorious for tolerating no bullshit in his courtroom. Earlier this year, Coughenour blasted Microsoft's contracts for temp workers as "outrageously arrogant," and ordered Microsoft lawyers to rewrite the contracts.

Coughenour was in true form during last week's liquor board trial. When Osgood said he didn't know how much time he had left to make his arguments, Coughenour responded, "I don't know either. That's your problem."

But Osgood got off easy compared to Barbara Herman, the attorney for the liquor board. Coughenour attacked her argument that the state should decide whether the law is constitutional, rather than the feds. When she said "inconsistent decisions" would make it hard for the liquor board to decide what to do, Coughenour interrupted her. "I don't think it would be very difficult," he said. "They would just have to do what I tell them to do."

Herman's colleague Phil Brenneman, the director of the Civil Enforcement Section of Sidran's office, fared a little better. (Lawyers for both the city and the liquor board appeared in court because the two work together to enforce the law.)

Brenneman argued that most club owners in Seattle manage to work with the city to get permission for dance and music eventually. He also mentioned that the "added activities" ordinance (Sidran's club law) should clarify the process and make it fair for everyone.

In that context, Brenneman pointed out that the city sought to close Clifford's club, Jersey's, because it was a public safety problem, with shootings and disturbances that the city felt were related to the dancing and music nights at the club.

Brenneman didn't mention, however, that city councilmembers are considering asking an independent law firm to review Sidran's ordinance, because they fear Sidran has gone too far in pushing the law to be trusted as an objective city attorney.

The judge said he would release a decision within a week.

All parties seemed relieved when the proceedings ended. Clifford had a big day ahead of him--an appearance on KVI, followed by a public hearing he helped organize about the misconduct of Seattle police.

His buddy Osgood had hoped to play hooky and watch Star Wars, but after staying up until 4:00 a.m. the night before, he opted for sleep.

 

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