Either a court or common sense will determine ultimately whether the D.C. City Council is guilty of discriminating against a local business group, namely video arcade operators.
For the time being, however, some council members' attempts to curb teenagers' patronage of video arcades in the District appear to be an indulgence in legislative overkill.
That being the case, arcade operators may be justified in screaming foul. In fact, The Amusement Machine Operators of Washington, D.C. Inc. says the measures are discriminatory in singling out one business group, a charge which sponsors of the bills deny.
At issue besides video arcades' purported effect on truancy is whether a segment of the business commmunity will be hurt by legislative attempts to correct the problem.
The council's Judiciary Committee conducted hearings last week on two proposals to fine school-age children $10 for patronizing video game parlors during school hours, to bar persons under 16 from arcades after 10 p.m. on school nights, and to require youngsters under 12 to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
The proposals are aimed ostensibly at reducing truancy, but they go far beyond the stated intent of their sponsors.
Indeed, sponsors themselves don't fully support each other's proposals. Council member H. R. Crawford, for example, opposes the 10 p.m. curfew called for by council member Nadine P. Winter. And Winter opposes Crawford's call for $10 fines to be levied against students found in arcades during school hours.
Although he strongly advocates a broad curfew for students, Crawford is reluctant to vote for one at this stage. "I just feel that that's discriminatory against one type of business," he concedes.
But Crawford's proposal "places the onus on the children," says Winter, who prefers to "place the onus on [video arcade] owners."
Crawford says his proposal isn't intended to regulate the arcades but rather to bar students from playing video games at any business establishment during school hours. Although conceding that some video games are "educational and motivational," Crawford maintains that "kids need to be in class."
"We are not trying to destroy the business community," he assured. "We hope the arcade owners will work with us" to reduce truancy.
For her part, Winter says she would withdraw her proposal "if I thought this legislation would put [arcade owners] out of business."
Would either piece of legislation really put arcades out of business? That claim hasn't been substantiated in formal testimony by spokesmen for the operators.
In any event, saturation may hurt the arcade business more than anything. At last count there were 78 arcades in the District, according to Winter. Largely as a result of this saturation, "business is falling off" and "a lot of arcades are closing, anyway," says John Cokinos, president of D.C. Vending Co. Inc.
Still there is the issue of fairness involved. Is the council making the city's arcade owners scapegoats as amusement machine operators spokesman Stuart J. Long charges?
Long contends the bills ignore other places where school children might congregate. What's more, he argues, "Children skipped school long before Pac-Man, and we assume that they will continue to skip school long after today's children are grown and Pac-Man and the video games have been replaced by tomorrow's technology."
True enough. But is it discriminatory to bar liquor store operators from selling alcoholic beverages to minors? Or is it discriminatory when theater operators are required to establish a youngster's age before admitting him/her to " X-rated movies?
In the current debate, neither business nor proponents of the video arcade bill provide altogether compelling arguments for their positions on truancy.
Truancy laws are already on the books, and what's needed really is tougher enforcement across the board. All businesses should be made to pay a penalty for violating licensing regulations and truancy laws. And a statute clearly stating that would obviate the need for singling out one business segment.
If an arcade operator chooses not to conform, he is, as Winter notes, "violating the law for the sake of a few coins."
In the meantime, council members seem to have confused their roles with those of parents by adopting a rather pedagogic attitude about students' after-school activities. To bar persons under 16 from frequenting legitimate business establishments after school hours is a form of discrimination.
The compromise that Crawford alluded to seems obvious. And arcade owners ought to be smart enough to realize that pent-up demand after school hours likely will offset the loss of a few dollars between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.