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In National Capital of Stripping, Portland, Residents Say Free Speech Has Gone Too Far

Portland, Oregon- “Come for the fishing, stay for the strip clubs.”

Portland, Ore., has more strippers per capita than anywhere else in the country, including Las Vegas. The sex industry boomed in the 1980s after the Supreme Court deemed obscenity protected free speech.

This T-shirt slogan from Portland, Ore., pretty much sums up the current state of affairs in this environmentally conscious, granola-crunching bastion of the Northwest. Here, the number of per capita strip clubs — where alcohol, full nudity and video gambling are all allowed under one roof — is tops in the nation and growing.

It’s all a result of the Oregon Supreme Court’s liberal rulings on obscenity. Pornographic bookstores and nude dancers are considered protected free speech in Oregon, which many state residents defend vigorously.

But now, residents of one small city outside Portland are trying to draw a line with an uphill battle to keep one more strip club out of town.

Tualatin, which one protester described as a “Leave it to Beaver” community of about 25,000, is gyrating over a businessman’s plan to open a Stars Cabaret, one of a chain of strip clubs catering to men.

Protesters like Jim Beriault, an eco-apparel salesman and father of three, say those opposing the club have nothing against sex or the Oregon Constitution, but that the proposed club location — in a town hub, next to a fitness center, a children’s gym and other family restaurants and businesses — is “inappropriate.”

“It will be right across the street from where we eat breakfast and ice cream,” said Beriault, who founded the group CHANGE or Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment.

“We live in a state that protects commercial industry above all others,” he told “We don’t have a lot of say. The [state] Supreme Court has given them free reign.”

Randy Kaiser, who owns four Stars Cabaret clubs in Greater Portland and wants to open a Tualatin club in November, defends his constitutional right to run a lucrative business.

“Sex, like the old proverb, sells and there’s always a market for it,” Kaiser told “In good times, it thrives and in bad times it’s an outlet for the mind to get off daily woes.”

The sex industry boom started in the mid-1980s, following a series of Oregon Supreme Court decisions forbidding regulation of any speech on the basis of content. Strip clubs can operate in any commercial zone, regardless of local opposition.

Four previous attempts to change the state’s two-decades-old law have failed.

Now the exotic epicenter of America, Portland has more than 50 strip clubs, about 7.4 per 100,000 residents, according to a 2005 report in Willamette Week. Even Las Vegas has fewer such clubs, with 5.8 per 100,000. Liberal San Francisco has only 2.2.

Portland itself promotes, in part, its reputation for sleaze as part of the funky, offbeat culture that thrives here, including a big indie-rock scene, legal medical marijuana and the nation’s only “death with dignity” assisted suicide law.

One of the state’s most popular bumper stickers is “Keep Oregon Weird,” according to Jeff Miller, president and CEO of Travel Portland, a private, nonprofit visitors’ bureau, which has a contract with the city.

“People come here to enjoy the outdoors, and we have a very green and sustainable state,” Miller told “We have amazing pinot wines, micro brews and one of the hottest food scenes in the country. We also have our eccentricities.”

The Beaver state’s liberal laws allow Portlanders to enjoy their “creature comforts,” according to Exotic magazine editor John Voge, such as “the ability to smoke, drink hard alcohol, have a filet mignon dinner for seven bucks and gamble amidst the company of nude entertainers.”

In Oregon, couples can get married while eating Bacon Maple bars at Voodoo Doughnut. And at so-called “juice bars,” the under-21 crowd can also view fully nude strippers.

“It’s a very tolerant place,” Miller told “There’s a live and let live attitude. We are all in this together and appreciate our differences.”

But in Tualatin — in a classic “not in my back yard” case — protesters claim the strip club would encourage rowdy behavior, drug use and even prostitution. Some worry that customers will prey on youth attending nearby gyms.

Protesters admit this is a zoning, not a free speech, issue, and the city’s only hope is to deny the club a liquor license because of its proximity to youth facilities.

“The problem is we live in the great state of Oregon,” said city council member Monique Beikman, a mother of three, who said she will fight the proposed club to the end.

“I am not necessarily in favor of this type of establishment at all, but if you must run a business and this is what you choose, then please locate your business where it will not affect the community and its families,” she told

Tualatin’s crime rate is low, and the biggest crimes run to identification theft and domestic disturbances, according to Police Chief Kent Barker, who was to report to the city council after investigating Stars Cabaret for its state liquor license application.

“It’s a wonderful town,” he told

Tualatin boasts only one other non-alcoholic strip club, Jiggles, which caters to 18-year-olds, and police said there have been no unusual problems with its operations.

But opponents of Stars Cabaret say Jiggles is located closer to Interstate 5 and not in the city’s commercial hub.

Stars’ Kaiser, a window manufacturer turned strip club owner, said he is a reputable businessman who for 13 years has served 2 million customers at his chain of “upscale gentlemen’s clubs.”

The operations cater mostly to 28- to 44-year-old men.

Like other Oregon strip clubs, dancers are fully nude, but there are no-touching policies except “above the shoulder or below the knees,” he said. “They can’t sit on your lap and grind.”

“We have an extensive history of operations in our state, but our opponents continue to make wild assertions about the negative impact on the community,” said Kaiser. “These wild assertions are just so hypocritical. Like Chicken Little, they say the sky is falling. The world is not going to end.”

“We have nothing against Stars,” said CHANGE’s Beriault. “We’re a very open-minded state, but in this case it’s gone too far.

“There’s a psychological impact these guys don’t talk about,” said Beriault. “We’re talking clientele in their early 20s and they want to party, so be it, I did. I don’t want to deny them having fun, but it’s a bad spot.”

“They wrap themselves in freedom of speech and their commercial entity can have no scrutiny,” he said.

Just last week, the city council discussed ordinances that would create an alcohol-free zone, require that workers stand four feet from patrons or prohibit patrons from paying strippers directly.

Such a measure, if passed, would have to be equally applied to all businesses. The council was also warned by the state attorney general’s office that they might be sued if they enacted restrictive zoning ordinances.

Now, the city’s last resort is to deny the club a liquor license because of its location near youth facilities. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission now has given officials until Dec. 2 to make a recommendation on the club’s liquor license application.

Should that fail, protesters say they will hold rallies.

One Portland musician who was drawn to Oregon for its tolerant attitudes said, “partly, I sympathize” with those who are unwilling to deal with the “unsavory elements” that come with liberal laws.

“I don’t go to strip clubs,” Ellery Harvey, 23, told “I’ve never enjoyed the atmosphere because I find it somewhat degrading. But, on the other hand, I refuse to try and stop someone from drinking at one, working at one, or opening one.”

Tualatin residents are finding that the culture of free speech has a strong tradition in Oregon. Just this year a proposition to amend the constitution failed because of lack of funding raising and petition signers. State legislators say they are not eager to go to battle again.

“Out here they are very liberal,” said Sean Laurent, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Oregon who was raised in another bastion of liberalism — Massachusetts.

“This is a place even more liberal, with a sort of radical liberalism that is very intense and strong,” Laurent told “People think, ‘Hey, I’m not harming another person and you shouldn’t dictate what I do or say.’ People take their personal freedoms seriously out here.”


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