Leave those kids alone

One participant in the process to rewrite Seattle's notorious Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO) admitted that everyone was nervously watching the door for a swarm of angry parents.

Although that expected opposition never showed up, a newspaper columnist is now playing the Mom role in fighting TDO reform. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Susan Paynter recently published back-to-back columns claiming that proposed changes to the law are simply a plot to empower child molesters. (Just two days earlier, Suzie Q had demanded that Seafair be disbanded on the grounds that it's icky.)

Which, predictably, led to an uproar. Paynter's chief allies appear to be a few cops, City Attorney Mark Sidran, and City Council President Margaret Pageler, who says she is glad somebody in the "regular press" is now following the issue. But, unfortunately for Paynter, the facts aren't on her side.

For starters, the loaded phrase "teen dance" was chosen to invoke images of the school gym decorated with streamers—in reality, the TDO is a business law regulating for-profit concerts and dance parties. Or, more accurately, banning them. Only one local venue has a TDO license, and nobody's tried to operate a commercial teen club under the ordinance in years.

Instead, the action occurs in the margins. Promoters have taken advantage of exemptions for very small clubs (the Velvet Elvis), 18-and-over clubs (DV8), and events sponsored by nonprofit groups (such as the shows set up by the Center On Contemporary Art). Some of the rule-beaters have been quite clever—one promoter took advantage of the exemption for events held in city-owned venues to draw several thousand kids to an all-ages rave at the former Kingdome Exhibition Hall.

As much as Paynter and her bluenose buddies love TDO provisions like reentry fees and excessive insurance requirements, nobody is currently complying with these provisions. Other sections of the seldom-used law are more onerous. The law requires that uniformed police officers provide security, but off-duty cops aren't rented out by the city, they are hired through the Seattle Police Officers Guild. This would allow the Guild, a private organization, to close down dances simply by claiming that they are all booked up. Given the Guild's recent demonstrated hostility toward the city's African-American community, it's unlikely that anybody could rent real cops for a hip-hop party.

Even worse is the ridiculous age limit of 15 to 20 imposed on dance clubs. Paynter argues that anyone 21 or over who wanted to attend a teen dance could only have evil thoughts on their mind. Look, genius, 21 is just one year older than 20. It's not that unusual for a 20-year-old to have friends who are a few years older (or younger) and to want to socialize with them. And, even though Paynter is too old to rock 'n' roll, lots of people in their 20s and 30s still enjoy rock shows and dances, even those featuring artists and DJs that draw a mostly younger crowd.

Imagine if the city passed a law stating that the P-I could only sell papers to folks within a given six-year range, say ages 52 to 57. (Hey, I'm just trying to make this example realistic.) The lawyers would be lined up at the front door of City Hall the next day, because no business could survive such "regulation." Nobody's sued over the TDO yet, mainly because would-be teen club owners and dance promoters can't afford it. They'd rather play the loopholes, including the big one of doing your shows outside city limits.

The critics do raise one good point—the proposed new All-Ages Dance Ordinance doesn't include a curfew, an omission that may have to be addressed before council approval. Other than that, the new rules are a sincere, well-thought-out attempt to let dance clubs and promoters actually play within the rules.

It's true that I carry a personal grudge on this issue. In 1985, when this law was passed, I was playing in one of the many bands in Seattle's active all-ages rock scene. Although the TDO was specifically passed to address renegade dance clubs, the police took advantage of the law's vague language to close down rock shows as well. For the record, teenagers actually behaved better in the presence of their elders, because they didn't want to look like a bunch of dumb kids. After being chased into the bars, the rock shows immediately became more booze oriented and the energy level of the audiences dropped appreciably (which, in turn, led to our city's now-famous staring-with-arms-folded show-watching culture).

Sure, I'm glad that the cops have since relented and allowed all-ages concerts to be held with only minor official harassment. But they could always change their minds. A law that puts such power in the hands of the police is not a good law, no matter what Mom says.

No rope swinging, either

Even as we clear the books of dumb old laws, our city leaders are hard at work passing dumb new laws.

Big Brother now says it's illegal to swim in the Ship Canal in both the Montlake and Fremont cuts. It's for your own good, of course, as you could get hit by a boat (or get grossed out by the murky water). Leave it to U District activist Matthew Fox to get the last word on this one. "Why stop there?" he writes in a letter to council members. "The City also ought to mandate a low-fat high-fiber diet, ban snow sledding, require condom use, and close every bar in town. After all, we can't let people engage in such risky behavior, can we?"*

 
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