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Stan Soocher

Entertainment attorney Stan Soocher is Associate Professor of Music & Entertainment Industry Studies at the University of Colorado Denver and Editor-in-Chief of the monthly Entertainment Law & Finance. His books include Baby You’re a Rich Man: Suing the Beatles for Fun & Profit and They Fought the Law: Rock Music Goes to Court. He has received ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for “Excellence in Music Journalism” for articles in Rolling Stone and The National Law Journal.

“Legal Challenges To Governmental Ordinances That May Impact Political Messages in Music”
State and local governments often enact ordinances to deal with problems that may arise from live music events. Governmental authorities typically cite public safety concerns. But less appropriate reasons may be behind these laws.

In considering the constitutionality of a First Amendment challenge by Rock Against Racism to New York City’s noise-level restrictions for live events, the U.S. Supreme Court noted about the political power of music: “From Plato’s discourse in the Republic to the totalitarian state in our own times, rulers have known its capacity to appeal to the intellect and to the emotions, and have censored musical compositions to serve the needs of the state.” (The high court nevertheless upheld the New York City law.)

After the countercultural gathering at the original Woodstock festival in 1969, the state of New York enacted its Mass Gathering Statute, which required a government-approved permit for events that attract more than 5,000 people. Over time, other states—and court challenges to the constitutionality of such permit procedures—have followed.

And when the city of Seattle enacted a public-nuisance abatement ordinance, the owners of a local nightclub challenged the law on free speech and equal protection grounds. The city said its law was aimed at “the pervasive problems of increased violence, noise, public drunkenness, drug-trafficking, and other illegal activity.” The club owners claimed, however, that rap music venues were the city’s real target. In the end, a federal appeals court ruled that the club owners’ legal claims were viable.

This Pop Conference presentation will explore the intersection of law, politics, and music as seen in court cases that have contested governmental attempts to control musical expression at live events. The presentation will also consider to what extent judges should be allowed to function as gatekeepers of political musical taste.