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Jackson repeals business solicitation laws

JACKSON — Facing legal action from a high-end downtown cosmetics store known for high-pressure sales tactics, the Town Council repealed a set of laws that the business said violated its constitutional right to free speech.

WY GP Retail LLC, which operates under the name Beleza, filed a lawsuit last month in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming, arguing for its ability to solicit customers on the sidewalk. But the company dropped its claim Friday after the town annulled four ordinances.

Beleza’s lawsuit alleged that law enforcement singled out the store because the town “disfavors commercial messages” and defended the shop’s practice of stopping passersby on the sidewalk as protected under the First Amendment.

“Flat bans on pure speech — even speech of a commercial nature — are seldom, if ever upheld, and are not constitutional under these circumstances,” the complaint stated. “The government has no legitimate interest in suppressing truthful, non-deceptive, non-coercive commercial speech.”

The repealed ordinances mostly prohibited the distribution or sale of samples and merchandise — other than newspapers, magazines and religious materials — on public property.

“We’re just being precautious,” Town Manager Larry Pardee said. “We’re not conceding that we’ve done anything wrong.”

Beleza — which is not connected with the salon Beleza on Pearl — is the second iteration of a hard-sell cosmetics business at the same location near the Pink Garter Plaza. The previous one, a salon called Sense Life, lost its license in January when officials decided its sales strategy was too aggressive.

When Beleza took its place soon after and continued soliciting customers, the store “was only open for a matter of days before it drew the attention of the town’s police and code enforcement officers,” according to the complaint.

On May 21, Jackson Police Detective Brian Morris notified the business that its solicitation practices violated one of the ordinances in question.

At that point, the complaint states, the store’s greeters became “alarmed” at the possibility of legal consequences for their work. On May 24, Beleza “was forced into the decision to temporarily close its doors as the threat of citations and possible arrest made the retention of greeters nearly impossible ... Without greeters, [the] business would virtually come to a standstill.”

The store reopened and has resumed its high-pressure sales tactics, which it calls essential to its business model. It argues that it can’t effectively target its wealthy clientele through other forms of advertising.

Because employees only talk to potential customers and hand out free samples and business cards on the sidewalk, rather than actually sell merchandise, Beleza argues they are not “conducting business” and therefore are within their constitutional rights.

Nevertheless, the business — and its similar predecessor — has drawn the ire of neighboring shops and officials.

Miga Rossetti, owner of Caldera Pizza, which sits two doors down from Beleza toward Town Square, said she “can’t even go to work” without being confronted by the store’s greeters.

“We think it’s complete harassment,” she said. “I was happy when the last business lost their license, and I was disappointed when the new one opened.”

She said she hasn’t noticed any harm to the pizzeria. But Todd Boyer, a manager at Boyer’s Indian Arts and Jewelry, said he’s noticed customers rush past his store after shaking off Beleza’s employees.

“They’ll walk by our doors and not even look in the windows because they’re so frustrated,” he said. “We’re not too fond of them.”

Boyer said his customers often complain about the high-pressure techniques next door. He acknowledged that Beleza greeters at least stay within the doorway, whereas those at Sense Life sometimes ventured onto the sidewalk.

“But,” he said, “I’m still not a big fan.”

When Sense Life was operating in essentially the same manner the Jackson Police Department was at one point “dealing with complaints on a weekly basis,” Lt. Roger Schultz said. He said he has received only one complaint so far about Beleza distributing flyers.

At least two customers reported being tricked into purchasing upwards of $12,000 at Sense Life. Others complained of being sprayed with perfume, and one complaint alleged that salesmen got a woman drunk on free alcohol so she would pay more.

In the complaint Beleza disputes any such behavior on the part of its employees, saying they “do not harass or impede the movements of passersby, but rather act in a professional manner, are courteous and inoffensive.”

Reem Lewit, the store’s manager, could not be reached for comment. Employees at Beleza said he is traveling for business.

Town Councilor Jim Stanford has a different perspective. He has called the original store, Sense Life, “the business equivalent of spam.”

He initially opposed the idea of repealing ordinances, saying he did not want to be “bullied” by “nuisance lawsuits.” But he was swayed by the final vote early this month and agreed with the rest of the councilors to temporarily undo the municipal codes.

“I bristled at first, but after talking with legal counsel and understanding some of the issues, it’ll be OK,” he said. “We’ll come back and follow through on the intent of these ordinances.”

Until then, though, the laws are not on the books and, hypothetically, other businesses could follow Beleza’s lead. Stanford said he isn’t worried about people abusing the law in its absence.

“Am I concerned that someone is going to set up and start selling hot dogs on Town Square? No, I’m not,” he said.

Though Beleza has retracted its complaint, it could refile it in the future depending on how the town’s revised ordinances turn out. But Daniel Aaronson, Beleza’s attorney in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said they’d prefer not to.

“We would much rather just have our client be able to do business in the city, and the city happy with us, and be one big family,” he said. “We don’t file lawsuits lightly, and we’re not anticipating having to go down that path.”