Nearly Nude Baristas Avoid Restraining Order In Court Fight

EVERETT, WA—A court in Washington state ruled this week that the barista who hands you your morning half-caf double almond milk latte, or whatever morning beverage selection you prefer, can wear whatever she wants behind the coffee counter—even if what she wants to wear is almost nothing at all.

Over the summer, the city of Everett, Washington, passed a pair of local laws designed to curb the apparently growing trend of “bare-ista” coffee stands: roadside drive-through operations where women who make and serve the coffee dress in attire more expected at the beach—or a gentlemen’s club—than at Starbucks. 

But employees and the owner of the growing coffee-stop chain Hillbilly Hotties sued, saying that the city ordinances violated the baristas’ constitutional rights to freely express themselves.

The city argued that the scantily clad baristas had become a magnet for criminal behavior around the Hillbilly Hotties coffee stands. And in fact, in neighboring Snohomish County, where the “bikini barista” stands also flourish, a sheriff’s deputy had pleaded guilty to money laundering in connection with a prostitution ring allegedly run out of one of the roadside coffee shops.

When Everett adopted its anti-bare-ista ordinances, it cited “a proliferation of crimes of a sexual nature occurring at bikini barista stands,” including prostitution, sexual assault and public masturbation. The city also cited overtly sexualized behavior by the skimpily-attired baristas, including flashing and performing exotic dances for coffee customers.

But United States District Court Judge Marsha Pechman, while she did not rule on the merits of the Hillbilly Hotties’ lawsuit, decided that the baristas may continue to wear, or not wear, whatever they want while the lower courts rule on the lawsuit.

By specifically targeting women, Pechman ruled, the city ordinances violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. Pechman also ruled that the baristas' rights of free expression under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution were also violated by the Everett laws.

 “The court’s order confirms that our clients, like all women, have a constitutional right to express themselves,” Derek Newman, a lawyer for the bare-istas, told The Seattle Times newspaper. He added that the baristas would cooperate with the city to curtail criminal behavior connected to the “bikini barista” businesses, without “criminalizing what women wear at work and in public.”

Lawyers for city argued that the bikini baristas’ customer base was not interested in the message of female empowerment and positive body image that the baristas claim to be getting across. The city also said that the ordinances applied to men and well as women (though bare-chested men serving coffee products are virtually non-existent), but that "legal precedent" allowed women’s breasts to be treated more restrictively under the law than bared male chests. (Such "precedents" are currently under challenge across the United States.)