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

By The Associated Press
01.25.10

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A law allowing police in a Rhode Island beach town to place orange stickers on homes that host raucous parties is constitutional, a federal judge has ruled, saying the First Amendment does not guarantee a "right to party."

Police in Narragansett have given out hundreds of stickers since 2005 under a town law intended to curb loud gatherings and rowdy behavior, particularly among students from the University of Rhode Island who rent homes off-campus during the school year.

The law bans parties of five or more people that disturb the neighborhood and that involve unlawful behavior such as public drunkenness and public urination. Police are allowed to post 10-by-14-inch stickers on homes where the parties occur. The stickers must remain up for the duration of the school year, and students who deface them can be fined.

The first sticker carries a warning, while the next noise violation triggers a $300 fine.

Students challenged the ordinance, saying the stickers amounted to public humiliation and interfered with their right to gather. Landlords also sued, saying the stickers made it hard for them to rent out their properties.

But U.S. District Judge William E, Smith on Jan. 22 rejected those arguments in a 44-page opinion that upheld the ordinance. He said the law was not aimed at breaking up intimate or quiet conduct, but instead targeted behavior that was offensive and already against the law. College house parties are not protected by the Constitution, he said.

"In other words, while the Beastie Boys might disagree, the First Amendment does not imply a 'right to party' dissociated from expression," Smith wrote in a footnote in his 44-page ruling, URI Student Senate v. Town of Narragansett.

Marc DeSisto, a lawyer for the town, declined to comment after the ruling but previously said the stigma from the stickers was not enough to make the law unconstitutional.

H. Jefferson Melish, a lawyer representing the students, said he was disappointed with the decision. Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union — which spearheaded the lawsuit — said there was no decision yet on whether to appeal.

Brown said he was especially bothered that the ordinance denied students who receive a sticker a hearing to challenge it.

"There's no mechanism for individuals who are recipients of these stickers to contest that determination," Brown said. "We find that very problematic."