- - Sunday, February 21, 2016

PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLA.— The actual bacchanalia is still to come, but the underside of spring break in this party mecca has produced heated council meetings, attempts at a crackdown and court proceedings on whether Fox News is to blame for the town’s purportedly racist crackdown.

Laws limiting alcohol consumption and scooter rentals have divided businesses and residents of this rural county which, for the past 20 years, has been transformed by hundreds of thousands of young visitors who spend tens of millions of dollars in a raucous six weeks.

Beach businesses and patrons upset with laws meant to crack down on the rite of spring have been suing the city, accusing local lawmakers of illegal and prejudiced actions, which they blame on Fox News coverage.

A federal judge with the Northern District of Florida has agreed to let a jury decide whether they are right.

“Plaintiffs’ characterization of the Fox News coverage as focusing disproportionately on African-Americans at Spring Break is probably a stretch, but it is by no means ‘objectively false,’” Judge Mark E. Walker wrote in a four-page order this month denying the city’s request that Fox News’ spring break coverage be withheld as evidence of racial animus.

“Particularly where issues of race and gender are involved, the same video footage may be interpreted quite differently by different people. For this Court to decide that the Fox News coverage did not, as a factual matter, focus disproportionately on African-Americans would be an inappropriate usurpation of the role of the jury.”

The crackdown

After last year’s eventful spring break, which included a gang rape on the beach and a house party shooting that left seven people injured, city and county officials enacted laws aimed at bringing the partying under control.

The city legislation passed last summer includes: no drinking on the beach or in commercial parking lots during March, increased fines for open-container offenses, no alcohol sales after 2 a.m. during March, minimum age of 21 to enter bars after midnight, no parking on rights of way after dark, no after-hours parking in business parking lots and a prohibition on balcony climbing.

An ordinance limiting scooter rentals was passed in the fall.

Bay County requires that patrons be at least 21, with the sole exception being those in possession of a military ID, to enter bars after midnight. But Panama City Beach does not, though some of the affected businesses in the county were recently annexed into Panama City Beach itself.

While most of the beach falls within city limits, some of it extends into Bay County, which crafted laws similar to those created by Panama City Beach.

Three businesses popular with spring breakers and locals alike teamed up in October to sue Panama City Beach. Clearwater-based lawyer Luke Lirot is representing those businesses, along with several patrons who claim they were victimized by racist actions on behalf of the city.

An owner of one of the largest and most popular clubs on the beach told The Washington Times that race motivated the City Council to enact spring break laws.

“I think the now-infamous ‘uninvited/unwanted guests’ [and] ‘thugs’ and similar references used to stereotype provide significant support for the racism claim, including perhaps some of the reporting” by Fox News, said Sparky Sparkman, owner of Spinnaker Beach Club, which was joined in a 15-count lawsuit by Club La Vela and Harpoon Harrys.

“Observation and comments made in my presence or directly to me by many over the last five to seven years, including beach and county politicians and administrators, provide all the support I need. Years of observation tell me that most — definitely not all — of those stereotyped are African-Americans.”

After last year’s coverage, Florida A&M University, a historically black college in Tallahassee, responded to the restrictions in Panama City Beach by promoting spring break in Miami this year through its school paper.

Biased coverage?

Panama City Beach City Council member Josie Strange, who led the charge to rein in spring break, denied that racism played a role in crafting the laws.

“Absolutely not. Spring break was completely out of control,” Ms. Strange told The Times. “We had to do something for the safety of people that live here. Race never entered into it. When you have to have law enforcement from six other agencies [and] three states come in and help your own police department, there’s something wrong.”

Ms. Strange, who appeared in Fox News’ spring break coverage, did not feel the network’s coverage was biased.

“They’re not picking out one particular male or female, black, white, Chinese, Indian — it’s just masses of people,” she said.

Nearly 15 minutes of Fox News coverage from last year’s spring break depicts revelers from various races, though most are white. None of the men and women that Fox News reporter Ainsley Earhardt interviewed denounced her questions or commentary as racist.

Fox News did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also allege that most City Council members used racially charged language when discussing spring breakers, a point that Judge Walker recognized.

“Further, this Court has found that the mayor and two council-members, a majority of the five person council, made comments ‘that could plausibly be construed as evincing some degree of racial animus’ themselves,” Mr. Lirot writes in a motion challenging the city’s request that the court disregard claims of racism.

Judge Walker also denied the city’s request to bar the testimony of an associate professor of criminal justice at St. Leo University, who Mr. Lirot says is an expert on racism.

Court documents filed under Funtana Village v. Panama City Beach reveal that St. Leo University associate professor Moneque Walker-Pickett is convinced city officials were influenced by racial bias when crafting ordinances.

“In the City of Panama City Beach City Council meetings, euphemistic code words were often utilized to describe these ‘undesirable’ visitors during spring break,” Ms. Walker-Pickett writes. “Based on the documents, photographs, and minutes reviewed, I am of the opinion that racial and cultural bias played a role in the implementation of the spring break ordinances.”

Ms. Walker-Pickett said the code words included “undesirables,” “thugs” and “100-milers.” The term 100-milers has been used to describe people within driving distance of Panama City Beach who are not college students.

Attorneys for Panama City Beach hoped Judge Walker would disregard racism claims, which they say are unfounded and nothing more than a distraction.

“The materially false allegations taint the entire proceeding, distract the parties and the Court from the relevant issues, and seek justice not through legitimate argument, but through objectively fake and unsupported allegations,” Scott Seagle, defense attorney for Panama City Beach, wrote in the motion that Judge Walker denied.

Contentious locals

Last year’s City Council meetings addressing spring break became so fiery and heavily attended that they were moved to a high school auditorium, where additional officers were brought in to circulate among hundreds of concerned residents, business owners and local workers.

A June meeting at Arnold High School became so passionate that two residents were met with memorable challenges by city representatives. Council member John Reichard asked one man if he was “man enough” to meet him on stage. Council member Keith Curry told another man to meet him at his house later to settle a dispute.

The biggest concern for businesses and residents is the monthlong ban of alcohol on the beach, which both the county and the city enacted. Several business owners and their employees, who packed city and county meetings during debate over the resolutions, told government representatives that the alcohol ban would cost them their jobs.

One source told The Times that local businesses are complaining about a drop-off in spring break condo/motel reservations because of the laws, and there is open talk of businesses leaving town.

“The worst-case scenario, if some forecasts I’ve heard materialize, is that we could easily be out of business, as in ‘forced to close the doors,’” said Mr. Sparkman, the club owner. “That would be costly and should illustrate to you the importance of spring break to our business model, developed over the last 43-plus years of our existence.”

Still, Judge Walker denied the businesses’ request to delay implementing the spring break laws until the case is decided. A trial date has not been set.

Of all the complaints leveled by the business owners, which include alleged First Amendment and property-related violations, Judge Walker said the accusation of racism is the group’s strongest complaint.

“While the City may be right that ‘[t]here are few things in modern society more repulsive, derogatory, and harmful than false claims of racism,’ Plaintiffs’ claims are not clearly false,” writes Judge Walker.

However, the judge believes business owners have not clearly demonstrated that city lawmakers were motivated by racism.

“The stench of racism is unmistakable in the record, but it’s not so rank that Plaintiffs have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of proving that race-based animus was a motivating factor behind the Spring Break Ordinances.”

Sheriff Frank McKeithen, who keeps in touch with various beach businesses, said he has had varying reports regarding spring break reservations this year.

Regardless of the number of spring break revelers who hit the city and county beaches this year, more law enforcement agencies will be on hand to help.

“We’re ready for the unknown, because we don’t know what to expect,” he said. “Everybody’s speculating, and we certainly don’t know. We’re just going to try to be prepared. That’s the best we can do.”

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