[from November 2003 issue]


We weigh in on the side of reforming the city’s ABC law, but not for the same reasons that many civic association activists would care to discuss. But before we state our substantive position on this matter, we wish to make one thing clear:

Contrary to the view of some seriously misinformed persons here and there around town, we are not the handmaidens of the booze industry. Yes, we enjoy a cocktail now and then, maybe even a couple of glasses of wine or a few beers on a lazy summer afternoon, but then so do the silent majority of this city.

We are not thrilled about the idea of wild nightclubs spilling drunken idiots onto the streets, nor are we happy to see boozers staggering around certain neighborhoods. But--and this is important to keep in mind--the city already has ample laws and regulations on the books to deal with these problems. Disorderly conduct and the noise ordinance come to mind. If only the police would actually enforce these laws we probably wouldn’t have neighborhood activists on the warpath to the extent that they are. The answer, then, is not to attempt to shut out more ABC-licensed establishments but to get the city law enforcement officers to actually do their jobs.

Having stated the above, now let us get to the heart of the problem as we see it. In an attempt by citizens to solve problems that, as we noted, can and should be solved through existing laws already on the books, they would have the city council impose yet even more draconian restrictions on restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs than already exist. They believe, for example, that music of any kind--even poetry readings (at least in one neighborhood) and other kinds of artistic and cultural expression must be totally squashed in the belief that such activities when presented where people may be enjoying cocktails, wine and beer somehow will lead to the destruction of their communities.

If the city council really buys into that position then the council will be taking the incredibly irresponsible step of holding up the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and expression as a bad thing for society--completely contrary to all that we believe.

Even now, with the law’s mechanism providing for so-called “voluntary agreements”--which are neither voluntary nor true agreements by any stretch of the imagination--and the ABC Board’s encouragement for these and its apparent lack of concern for true fact-finding, we have reached the point where one has to be seriously concerned about the willingness of both our elected and appointed officials and of our neighbors in treating the fundamental guarantees of the Constitution with such disdain.

Yes, it is true, we can have a more orderly society, including less street noise (which seems to be a strange agenda to follow in the downtown of a major city), less incidental trash strewn about, and so forth if we can do away with the kinds of activities guaranteed by the First Amendment. That might be fine for citizens of some countries, but we have been under the impression ever since first grade that this is not what America stands for. Why must the capital city of the Free World attempt to re-create the ways of Beijing during the days of Mao?

There are those who say that the 21st Amendment, which repealed the stupidity of Prohibition (haven’t we learned from that idiocy?), somehow “pre-empts” the First Amendment. That is sheer nonsense, and there is no judicial authority to support such a contention. In fact, just recently an attorney in New England won an important case upholding the protection for the playing of music in ABC-licensed establishments. The fact is, the 21st Amendment is restricted to the matter of the manufacture and distribution of alcohol, not the manufacture and distribution of music or literature. To suggest otherwise is sheer nonsense, and the city council must take steps to reign in an ANC board that has helped to perpetuate this myth of 21st Amendment primacy over the Bill of Rights.

So, not only for the reasons stated above must the ABC law be reformed to either do away with or substantially modify the “voluntary agreement” business, but also for the reason that by the very nature by which these so-called agreements are imposed there is a complete denial of due process and equal protection accorded to the businesspeople who feel compelled to sign. That there can be provisions in the ABC law that gives rise to consistent, DC government-encouraged tearing down of the provisions of the Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses is a travesty. This situation cries out for correction.