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ACLU Criticizes Warwick Public Safety Order Barring Hip-Hop Music

Posted: December 16, 2004|Category: Free Speech

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today said that the Warwick Board of Public Safety “set a dangerous and unconstitutional precedent” in banning a local nightclub from hosting hip-hop or rap music. The ban was imposed on Tuesday on “Barry’s” nightclub, in response to an incident earlier this month where a man was shot at the club. Although the club owner had voluntarily agreed to no longer offer this type of entertainment, the Board amended the club’s liquor license to explicitly ban these particular musical events.

In a letter to the Board of Public Safety, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown noted that the ACLU did not question the Board’s right to impose reasonable conditions on the club’s license in order to reduce the further likelihood of violence or patron misconduct at the club. But, the letter continued, “when the Board goes so far as to ban certain types of music at an establishment, extremely serious First Amendment issues are implicated.”

Other excerpts from the ACLU’s letter follow below:

“The recent highly-publicized shooting at an Ohio nightclub where a heavy metal band was performing demonstrates – if such demonstration were ever needed – that one cannot single out particular types of music as more or less likely to lead to patron misconduct. Hip-hop and rap concerts routinely take place throughout the state without any untoward consequences. . . Banning hip-hop and rap music at Barry’s nightclub because of disruptive incidents is no more appropriate than banning ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at sporting events where spectator melees have occurred.

“Further, since hip-hop and rap music often have a decided anti-establishment edge to them, a decision singling out these forms of musical performance for a ban has a content-based component that is especially troubling in a free speech context. Additional concerns are raised by the fact that these are also, not coincidentally, musical forms with a large African-American constituency.

In short, we believe the Board of Public Safety has embarked down a slippery slope in dictating to club owners what type of music they can host or perform. The Board has many means at its disposal – unrelated to the censorship of speech – to address these sorts of problems, including setting liquor restrictions, requiring an increased security presence, and so forth.  We urge the Board to reject any further actions that put it in the role of musical censor.”

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