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Blog: First Amendment doesn't shield too-hearty party
First Amendment Watch

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

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The signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 declared the idea that all people have "unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

But it was the Beastie Boys — a punk-inspired rap group that first had hits some 25 years ago — that lyrically proclaimed in 1986 that we have a "right to party."

Though the Declaration's ideals survive intact, a federal judge said Jan. 22 that First Amendment rights of free speech and association don't apply when it comes to gathering just to have a good time.

In Narragansett, R.I., according to the ruling by U.S. District Judge William E. Smith, "each Fall, students at the University of Rhode Island flock ... to take advantage of [the town's] abundant seasonal housing."

All in Narragansett "do not welcome their presence," Smith observed. "The Town council blames student renters for throwing rowdy parties that encourage lawbreaking such as underage drinking and fighting."

The decision notes that 22% of the housing stock in Narragansett is "seasonal or vacation" rental units, and that officials and residents have long complained about quality-of-life issues ranging from overcrowding to excessive traffic and noise, litter, public drunkenness and "large gatherings of people" that can foster such problems.

A 2005 town ordinance bans what it terms "unruly gatherings." It empowers police to "break up parties they decide are causing a 'substantial disturbance.'" If police do so, they have to post a 10-by-14-inch orange sticker near the front entrance to the offending residence for the rest of the school year. This warning sticker notes that further disturbances will trigger further punishment, including against partygoers and landlords. Subsequent violations carry a $300 fine.

A lawsuit filed by several landlords, students and the university's student senate raised six legal objections to the ordinance, including a constitutional claim that the law violated partygoers' right of free speech and their freedom to associate with one another.

Not so, declared Smith: While conceding that "anyone who has college-aged children knows that 'hanging out' is an important, even vital social experience," he noted that the Constitution does not provide a generalized right of social association ... and "does not protect college house parties, no matter how many problems of the world are solved at them."

Smith concluded his discussion with the observations that students and others "cannot claim constitutional protection for get-togethers that do not serve political or expressive ends." He added this footnote: "In other words, while the Beastie Boys might disagree, the First Amendment does not imply a 'right to party' disassociated from expression."

Perhaps if the gatherings involved a political or religious purpose, the judge wrote, First Amendment protections might apply.

Comment? E-mail me


R.I. town can 'sticker' it to party houses, federal judge rules

'While the Beastie Boys might disagree, the First Amendment does not imply a "right to party" dissociated from expression,' says court. 01.25.10

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