Businesses say Panama City Beach violated their civil rights

Melissa Nelson-Gabriel, Associated Press

Pensacola, Fla. (AP) — Several Panama City Beach nightclub owners argue in a lawsuit filed Friday that local officials violated their rights and showed racial bias when they approved a series of new ordinances designed to curb spring break mayhem.

The club owners, other businesses and eight other anonymous plaintiffs, described as representative club patrons of various races, claim city officials deprived business owners of their property rights and unfairly targeted events frequented by black spring breakers.

The new regulations were prompted by a series of problems that included three men charged with alleged sexual assault on a crowded beach and a shooting at a spring break house party this year.

City officials and did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen is mentioned several times in the lawsuit, but is not listed as a defendant.

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all, it’s pretty obvious that money trumps morals and public safety. It’s disturbing these businesses would attempt to extort Panama City Beach by using inflammatory racial bias claims in an effort to distort the truth and mislead the court merely for personal greed,” McKeithen said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press.

Attorney Luke Lirot, who represents the business owners, said the city passed ordinances that are unfair to the businesses.

“The appropriate response to the incidents is not telling clubs what bands can play or where they can serve alcohol, especially when so many people’s livelihoods depend on the short spring break season,” he said.

In the federal lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege a crackdown by local officials began with the arrival of more black visitors.

“Beginning in 2014, the attendees at Spring Break began to include a larger number of African Americans,” the lawsuit states. “Panama City Beach and Bay County officials have suggested that spring break is now rife with ‘predators’ and other ‘interlopers,” the lawsuit states.

The club owners say they were told by local officials not to host hip-hop shows because the events would attract too many black spring break attendees.

In the lawsuit, the club owners also state that they have worked with local law enforcement in past years to control crowds and curtail underage drinking and that the new regulations were a response to larger number of black spring break attendees.

“The legislation at issue in this complaint was supported by the stereotype of race and the specter of racial attacks,” the lawsuit states.

The ordinances include restrictions on beach drinking during spring break, limiting the clubs’ hours of operation, requiring additional approvals to hold special events and regulations that target loitering in some areas of the beach and beach parking lots.

The lawsuit claims the new regulations unfairly restrict the club owners’ ability to do business and will hurt the local economy.

Liort said the club owners want the city to compensate them for their financial losses. He said they will request an expedited hearing on the lawsuit with the goal of resolving the issue before spring break 2016.

The lawsuit also takes issue with McKeithen’s statements to news organizations about what he described as a gang rape on the crowded beach behind one nightclub.

“It was clearly with malice and the intent to inflict great reputational harm that the official Bay County Sheriff’s Office press release contained the specific terminology ‘gang rape’ without further elaboration and/ or explanation of what had actually occurred,” the lawsuit states.

Three men have been arrested and are awaiting trial on charges of sexual assault by multiple perpetrators.

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