Truth-Tellers Pay High Price For Challenging Government
Times Editorial Columnist
THERE'S an obscure German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, whose most famous quote is my favorite mantra: "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."
A year and a half ago, I began covering a fiery bar owner and a brainy young lawyer who leveled unbelievable complaints against the city of Seattle and the state Liquor Control Board. Armed with depositions, reports and Kafka-esque tales of local taverns and clubs shut down arbitrarily, the pair accused the two government agencies of unconstitutional enforcement and petty tyranny.
The business owner, Chris Clifford of Jersey's All-American Sports Bar, and the lawyer, Dave Osgood, raised disturbing questions about selective racial enforcement by Seattle cops. They helped expose dubious sting tactics used against law-abiding Central District establishments such as Oscar's II and Deano's. And they posed a persistent challenge to Seattle's regulatory pursuit of Pleasantville at any price.
The alternative press, civil libertarians, minority activists, musicians and talk-radio hosts opened their ears. So did the feds. The U.S. Justice Department is now investigating possible racial profiling of minority businesses. The FBI and State Patrol are investigating alleged corruption by Liquor Board agents. Yet, the rowdy prophets were largely ignored by Seattle's mainstream media and political establishment.
The city attorney's office cast Clifford as a litigious troublemaker (he has wrestled the city in federal court for nearly a half-dozen years to save his business) and dismissed Osgood as a neophyte (he's a baby-faced solo practitioner three years out of law school). In public forums and in print, Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran and Liquor Board lawyers suggested that those allied with Clifford and Osgood were irresponsible opportunists or public-safety menaces.
On April Fool's Day, Osgood filed a historic motion for summary judgment in one of Clifford's federal suits against the city and Liquor Board. The Hail Mary move sought to immediately overturn a state law requiring liquor establishments to seek permission from the government in order to have dancing and music. Nobody had ever challenged the obscure statute over its 62-year history.
That's because, Osgood says, "It's always a race with regulators. Most businesses get shut down before they know what hit them." Clifford's bar was on the brink of closure as a result of the local Liquor Board office's zealous campaign to stop him from playing hip-hop music and featuring live bands. Seattle Agent-in-Charge William Schrader acknowledged his personal animus toward Clifford and admitted that some of the agents in his office might retaliate against a licensee based on his dislike.
Schrader's power trip knew no bounds. Osgood noted in his brief that Schrader "clearly stated that the Board had the power and authority to prohibit a wide range of constitutionally protected political and communicative expression, including, music, dancing, plays, comic routines, poetry readings, lectures, politically motivated lectures, campaign speeches, and political fund-raisers."
Double-teamed by city and state attorneys with huge staffs and limitless resources, and further crippled by kangaroo-court administrative hearings, the odds against Clifford and Osgood seemed insurmountable - until last week when U.S. District Judge John Coughenour slammed the added-activities law and the government's enforcement of it as "a stark grant of unrestrained official power to license speech."
Overnight, the truths that Clifford and Osgood have been telling for years moved from the ridiculed to the violently opposed to conventional wisdom.
Then, the same foes who paralyzed Clifford's business suddenly welcomed the ruling with open arms. Thanks for doing us a "great big favor," Liquor Board member Charles Brydon said. "Party on," Sidran told the press.
"Talk about being in Bizarro-land," Clifford cackles infectiously.
A sense of humor is a prerequisite for principled dissenters. How else to cope with the Alice-in-Wonderland predicament of having your livelihood threatened because some faceless bureaucrat can't stand urban music and doesn't like where you put a foosball table (an "unauthorized gaming device," the liquor board declared)?
While there's much to celebrate - Jersey's will hold a victory party July 10; Oscar's II has won back its liquor license and is back in full-service business - the Liquor Board has nevertheless decided to yank Clifford's license. Clifford and Osgood will be in the state Court of Appeals on July 12 to stave off that ruling.
Clifford is preparing for another civil-rights trial against the city in October. And Osgood is awaiting another crucial decision from the state appeals court on the constitutionality of the state drug-abatement law. They've paid a high price to beat back unchecked regulators and overzealous law-enforcers.
But to Clifford, Osgood and their supporters, the need for eternal vigilance against petty tyrants is self-evident. -------------------------------
Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: email@example.com.
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