Thursday, April 17, 2008

Aspiring minister defends adult clubs

Documentary by Upper Marlboro lawyer chronicles suit against county, seeks to humanize exotic dancers

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Upper Marlboro lawyer Jimmy A. Bell was pursuing a Biblical studies certificate in 2006 when a friend, a male exotic dancer, convinced him to take up a federal lawsuit against the Prince George’s County on behalf of a local nightclub.

The county had passed earlier that year an ordinance that would, among other things, prevent dancers from being semi-nude unless they were on a raised stage and from being tipped during performances.

Bell, who previously had represented local nightclubs, said he hesitated. But eventually he agreed because he felt the county was trying to drive nightclubs out of business.

‘‘It was very difficult for me to do that. You try to place yourself in a situation that gives the appearance of not doing anything wrong,” said the 39-year-old Bell, who still plans to become a minister. ‘‘I think my grandmother, who was a very religious woman, wouldn’t want me protecting nightclubs in spite of the Constitutional rights they have.”

The case, which ended with a judge’s ruling in April 2007 that the county could not enforce many of the conduct regulations, prompted Bell to make a documentary last year about it.

The 50-minute movie, called ‘‘Don’t Hate: Strippers Fight the Government,” follows male dancers at the Classics in Suitland, one of the clubs involved in the lawsuit. Bell wrote, directed and produced the movie, and was helped in making it by two cameramen and another attorney.

The movie has been selected for competitive screenings at the Black International Cinema festival in Berlin in May and the Hollywood Black Film Festival in June.

Bell’s goal with the movie was to ‘‘humanize” exotic dancers and their patrons, he said, because his legal battle with the county convinced him that people opposed to adult clubs have an exaggerated idea of what goes on inside them.

‘‘I thought it might make a good documentary because they don’t look at [exotic dancers] like human beings,” Bell said.

Ed Cloyd, the dancer who had approached Bell for legal help in 2006 agreed. He said trying to find a lawyer had been ‘‘frustrating” because many did not want to represent exotic entertainers.

‘‘They don’t look at this like it’s our job. Once they hear entertainers, they immediately look down on us,” Cloyd, 30, said.

But Bell, who Cloyd has known for 10 years, ‘‘understood that’s how we feed our family,” he said.

The movie shows Cloyd, a dancer for seven years, performing at the club and later spending time with his 5-year-old son. Female patrons describe the club as a place where they feel comfortable because there are no male patrons to hit on them.

In passing the 2006 ordinance, the county felt that adult clubs ‘‘may and do generate secondary effects which are detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare,” including drug use, prostitution and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, according to a draft of the ordinance.

But in court, the county was not able to produce ‘‘any credible evidence” that its regulations would curb such secondary effects, and therefore it could not justify putting limits on performers’ First Amendment right to free expression, wrote U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.

Bell said part of his goal with the movie was to show that exotic dancers are professionals who do not regularly contribute to prostitution and other crimes.

Bell has practiced Constitutional and criminal law since 1997 and has represented local adult entertainment clubs since around 2000, he said.

‘‘People have misconceptions when dealing with adult entertainment,” he said. ‘‘It’s a licensed business. They have the same issues as if they owned a McDonald’s franchise or an auto parts store.”

The 2006 lawsuit was not Bell’s only federal challenge of local regulations on adult clubs.

He has been engaged in an ongoing federal lawsuit since 2005 with the state and county over similar restrictions placed on local clubs.

Representing the Legend Night Club in Temple Hills and the Classics, he is challenging a 2005 state law that would require the county Board of License Commissioners to revoke liquor licenses for clubs that offer entertainment involving nudity or sexual displays.

Garbis, who is hearing this case as well, granted a preliminary injunction in March 2006 against the state law because it appeared to unfairly single out clubs that began operating in 1982 or later, thus violating their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection.

‘‘There is little, if any, justification for granting an exemption from the legislation to establishments that commenced operations in 1981, while denying the exemption to [Classics], which commenced its operations in 1982,” Garbis wrote.

A court date to reconsider the injunction in U.S. District Court is set for May 30.

Bell said he does not plan to represent adult clubs in similar cases indefinitely.

‘‘Hopefully this is the last one,” he said. ‘‘Hopefully, the county won’t try something like this again.”