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Students Fight for Right to Party Loudly

A Cal Poly San Luis Obispo group boycotts a city councilman's tavern after he votes for a noise ordinance it says could help his business.

June 14, 2005|Susana Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

SAN LUIS OBISPO — In an ongoing dispute between college students who want to party and residents who want peace and quiet, the City Council here finally took sides. It opted for quiet.

Last month, the council unanimously approved the extension of an ordinance that increases fines for noise violations. The measure was implemented to deter rowdy revelers like the ones who turned last year's Mardi Gras festivities into a riot.

In reaction, a group of 30 students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo formed to overturn the fine increase -- Students Opposed to Unfair Noise Discrimination, or SOUND.

Members of SOUND say one councilman's vote presented a conflict of interest. They contend that, as the owner of Mother's Tavern, a bar in downtown San Luis Obispo, Paul Brown stands to benefit from the ordinance.

"If you can't gather socially at your house, you're going to have some beers at the local bar," said Jeff Hansen, the 22-year-old spokesman and leader of the group. "We looked at the City Council members and figured we needed to do something to grab some press and put it out there."

The students decided to boycott the bar.

Mother's Tavern, Hansen added, seemed to be a good vehicle for the group's campaign against the fine increase. So, to spread the word, members of the group have posted fliers on campus and in classrooms, gone out to the farmers market with signs and pamphlets on Thursday evenings, and met with reporters.

Their hope is that the council members will reconsider the ordinance, which they feel is anti-student, in the fall once they hear how students feel about it.

Brown doesn't think it will happen.

"It's not targeted toward students. It's targeted toward behavior," said Brown, a Cal Poly alumnus and 19-year resident of the Central Coast community. "My job is to make decisions that affect the most people in town positively. Raising fees is never sexy."

The fines were raised from $100, $200 and $500 for consecutive violations within a 12-month period to $350, $700 and $1,000.

Deborah Linden, chief of the San Luis Obispo Police Department, said the fine increase was necessary because the department fields about 3,000 complaints of loud music and parties per year.

"It's a significant problem in our neighborhoods," she said. "It's been a huge resource strain."

The Police Department requested that the fines be temporarily tripled for Mardi Gras to prevent a repeat of last year's melee, in which an estimated 5,000 people converged on a weekend-long street party. Crowds refused to disperse, and when some female students exposed themselves, the crowd got even rowdier, with some students hurling things at police.

Because the ordinance -- along with a strong police presence and public service campaign that essentially said the party was over -- worked so well this year, police asked that the council make the measure permanent.

Brown said he never thought about abstaining from the vote. Even if he had, he added, the ordinance would have passed.

Both sides have yet to meet to discuss the issue.

Because he has always been connected with the student population, Brown, 37, said he was never worried about the boycott hurting his business. The bar tries to create the feel of an establishment from the early 1900s, with lots of mahogany, a large mirror and stuffed animals, including a moose head that Brown calls George.

The week that followed Hansen's announcement of the boycott at a City Council meeting was the fourth best week of the year for Mother's Tavern, Brown said.

"It's not damaging me," he said.

Taking advice from a friend, Brown decided to spoof the boycott and turn it into a marketing opportunity.

He ordered bright, gold-colored T-shirts that say "Boycott Mother's Tavern" on the front. On the back, in classic David Letterman style, is a list of the top 10 reasons to boycott the bar. The No. 1 reason? "Boycotting Mother's Tavern is more fun than waiting in long lines for 'Star Wars.' "

At $15 a pop -- $10 of which is being donated to a service center for the homeless -- Brown said he has sold nearly 200 of the 250 shirts he had made. He doesn't plan to order more.

The members of SOUND aren't amused.

"It's a good marketing ploy," said Hansen, who hasn't been to Mother's Tavern in more than a year. "But that's kind of just throwing it back in our faces."

Meanwhile, SOUND is making its own fashion statement with white T-shirts spray-painted with "Fight the Fines" and "Boycott Mother's."

About 18 members of the group have drawn their motivation from a history class titled "Rebels With a Cause: 20th Century United States Social Movements."

Professor Heather McCarty said she allotted the last 10 minutes of class for the group to discuss and organize their social movement.

"Cal Poly's mission is to learn by doing -- it's outstanding to see them doing that," McCarty said. "I stay completely out of it. This is for them to decide and figure out on their own."

The students did not receive credit for their activism, she said.

Although Hansen graduated last weekend and moved to Colorado Springs on Monday, he said, "The people are going to continue the fight next year."

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