Blog: First Amendment doesn’t shield too-hearty party

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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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

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

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.

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