Although the Foxy Lady has been providing adult entertainment in Providence for decades, it had never been called before the Providence Board of Licenses until this month, after a police sting there resulted in three women being charged with the misdemeanor offense of soliciting for prostitution. The Board, rather than commend the club for its longstanding record of compliance with the licensing laws, instead took the extraordinary step of permanently revoking the Foxy Lady’s entertainment and liquor licenses, throwing more than 200 people out of work just a week before Christmas.

It did so after concluding, without any direct evidence to support the conclusion, that club owners had “created an environment for tolerating prostitution.” Even that finding is as tenuous on culpability as can be. Note that the owners were not accused of promoting prostitution at the establishment in any way, or even tolerating prostitution there. Rather, their offense was that they had “created an environment” for tolerating it!

Given the lack of previous licensing violations, the fact that the employees had been arrested and not yet convicted, and the nature of the alleged crime – a non-violent  (and not even consummated) misdemeanor offense whose only victim, the police report itself acknowledged, was “society” – the extreme punishment imposed seems inexplicable.

The unfairness is compounded when one learns that the sting operation at the club was supposedly initiated because a female employee had, a few weeks earlier, been the victim of a sexual assault by a customer, and the club sought the police department’s help. Yet thanks to the police and the Board of Licenses, it’s women who have borne the brunt of the punishment. Three of them face criminal charges and have had their names and photos splashed across the media for a victimless crime, and dozens more are suddenly out of work and without a paycheck – all under the guise of “protecting” women.

As galling as this moral hypocrisy is, the true outrage comes in comparing the punishment meted out to the Foxy Lady with the penalties imposed against other licensees who have run into much more serious trouble with the law. Only a few examples (though there are many more where these came from) need be cited to make the point:

• November 2018 [one month earlier]: A patron at the Art Bar shoots into the ceiling of the building. The establishment is found by the Board not to have had appropriate required security plans in place. The penalty: a 30-day license suspension, a 90-day reduction in hours, and a requirement to revamp security and install video cameras.

• October 2018 [two months earlier]: At the XS Lounge, a patron fires shots outside the bar, and the owner of the club is found to have ordered employees to delete surveillance footage the night of the shooting. The penalty: a reduction in the club’s hours of operations for 90 days and a mandated police detail.

• June 2017: A bouncer at the Rock & Rye Bar, who was admittedly hired by the establishment without proper licensing, starts a fight with, and stabs, a patron. The penalty: a 12-day suspension of license, mandated weekend police details, and a $1,500 fine.

• March 2017.  A double stabbing transpires inside Club Ultra. The penalty: a four-day license suspension and a required permanent police detail on Saturday nights.

After reviewing the Board’s decisions in these other cases, its reasoning for shutting down the Foxy Lady borders on the absurd. In issuing the draconian penalty of permanent license revocation, rather than other less severe penalties routinely issued against other license violators, the Board concluded that having three women supposedly solicit sex from men who were patronizing a strip club constituted “a danger to the health, welfare and quality of life of the public” and posed a “severe” “harm to the community.”

A review of these incidents sends a clear message about the priorities of the Board of Licenses: public displays of violence, inadequate safety measures, and even the destruction of evidence are forgivable and redeemable on the first offense. Allegations of soliciting consensual and private sexual activity – instigated by the police themselves – are not.

It is this disconnect in the way the Foxy Lady was treated compared to other licensees that prompted the Department of Business Regulation earlier this week to reverse the Board’s revocation of the club’s liquor license and require a new hearing. Unfortunately, the club’s loss of its entertainment license remains in effect.

The Foxy Lady provides entertainment protected by the First Amendment. The Bolshoi Ballet it may not be, but before the government should be able to completely shutter an establishment engaged in free speech activity, a much stronger showing than the flimsy grounds presented here must be demanded.

The precedent created by the Board’s decision is unsettling. Just as unsettling is the Board’s hypocrisy in being more concerned about the possibility of solicitation of consensual sex taking place in licensed establishments than the occurrence of actual violence. This puritanical obsession – the notion that sex deserves more condemnation than violence – may not be challengeable when used by the MPAA’s movie rating system, but it certainly deserves denunciation when a government agency engages in it. Here’s hoping that the courts agree.