By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In the 1920s, lawmakers reasoned that the cabaret law would protect patrons from the immoral influences of nightlife. Today, Giuliani defends the law with a similar ethos: "The rule makes sense, and it is helpful in terms of improving the quality of life of all of the neighborhoods of New York City," he told the Daily Newsin 1997. Repeated phone calls to the mayor's office for comment on the law and its enforcement were not returned.
"The cabaret laws were written right after prohibition to regulate an industry that had been dominated by criminal figures," says Robert Bookman. "Seventy years later, we still have the same law regulating dancing, even though much of it has been found to be unconstitutional." Now Giuliani has stepped up enforcement of a law that Bookman says resembles a piece of Swiss cheese. "It's very old and filled with holes."
From Giuliani's perspective, the law's purpose is twofold: to protect a nightclub's patrons and neighbors from unsafe conditions and obtrusive noise. Last September, former consumer affairs commissioner Jules Polonetsky defended the cabaret law by recalling the 1990 fire that killed 87 people in the Bronx venue Happyland. But Happyland, argues Bookman, was an illegal social club that had never even been inspected by the fire department. "Now the cabaret law is used as an additional weapon against legal nightclubs," he says. "When a club is otherwise licensed, they'll try to catch a couple people moving."
New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Normal Siegel predicts that historians 20 years from now will see this period in New York City's history as a time when freedom was trampled upon. He says that aside from Giuliani's myopic view of freedom, the crackdown on nightclubs "is also part of the antifun policies of the Giuliani administration.
"You had a group of people who had a different vision of what freedom is about, and they used the police to carry out their vision," says Siegel. He plans on challenging the constitutionality of the remaining parts of the cabaret law. But he also acknowledges that it won't be easy. This is because in 1989, one year after Chevigny's case was resolved, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that social dancing is not protected by the First Amendment.
"People say to me, this is not that significant because it's only restricting dancing," says Siegel. "But that's how you lose your freedom; it comes incrementally."