North Dakota City Rewriting Rules to Keep Theater From Getting Liquor License

A theater in Bismarck applied for a liquor license, so city leaders decided to change the requirements.


Movie theaters, facing ever-increasing competition from innovators such as Netflix and other on-demand movie services are trying new ways to lure potential customers out of their homes.

Some have found success by turning the movie-going experience into more than just squeaky chairs, sticky floors and popcorn.

Recent years have seen a new trend of upscale movie theaters offering food and drink menus that look like they should belong in a restaurant. Some even have tables instead of the traditional rows of fold-up seats.

But that sort of business model only works if you can get the proper licenses from the local or state government.

It won't fly in Bismarck, North Dakota.

City officials there voted last week to rewrite the rules to prevent a movie theater from purchasing a liquor license.

Carmike Theaters, a national chain, had applied for a license and planned to offer beer for sale—something the company is doing across the country as part of a national effort to expand concession offerings.

City commissioners responded by tightening the rules on who can get a license to serve booze. They told the Bismarck Times that the original intent of the city's liquor licensing law was to ensure only restaurants and bars can sell.  The new law requires potential licensees to have table tops and a full kitchen before they can serve beer or liquor.

In Bismarck, Carmike Theaters filed the license application on Jan. 20, before city commissioners rewrote the law to specifically exclude them.

R.J. Pathroff, an attorney from the Vogel Law Firm, who represented Carmike Theaters, told the Bismarck Tribune that the city should not base its decision retroactively on a revised law.

City officials say they have never given a liquor license to any establishment that isn't a restaurant or a bar—the classic bureaucratic response of "we've always done it this way" explains so much about what makes government a pain to deal with, when you think about it.

Except that's not even true. As the Tribune points out, the Bismarck Event Center, a convention center, has a liquor license.

Finally, other members of the city council said they had concerns about minors being served alcohol in the movie theater.

Seems like that's an argument for banning all alcohol sales in the city, right? Isn't there an equal concern that minors could get a beer at a bar or restaurant?

If those establishments serve minors, and get caught, they will be punished and will lose their license. Why should a movie theater be treated any differently?

Rewriting a law to specifically exclude or ban one particular business—after they've already applied for the license, no less—is a straight-up intrusion by government into the marketplace. In the absence of a legitimate public safety reason to stop Carmike Theaters from selling beer, this action by the Bismarck City Council screams of nannyism.

It could be worse, though. This guy in England is trying to get theaters to ban popcorn.  The horror!

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