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Mass Gatherings and Public Events

Must Regulations of Mass Gatherings be the Least Intrusive? - Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989)

(from the court's syllabus)

Respondent Rock Against Racism (RAR), furnishing its own sound equipment and technicians, has sponsored yearly programs of rock music at the Naumberg Acoustic Bandshell in New York City's Central Park. The city received numerous complaints about excessive noise at RAR's concerts from users of the nearby Sheep Meadow, an area designated by the city for passive recreation, from other users of the park, and from residents of areas adjacent to the park. Moreover, when the city shut off the power after RAR ignored repeated requests to lower the volume at one of its concerts, the audience became abusive and disruptive. The city also experienced problems at bandshell events put on by other sponsors, who, due to their use of inadequate sound equipment or sound technicians unskilled at mixing sound for the bandshell area, were unable to provide sufficient amplification levels, resulting in disappointed or unruly audiences. Rejecting various other solutions to the excessive noise and inadequate amplification problems, the city adopted a Use Guideline for the bandshell which specified that the city would furnish high quality sound equipment and retain an independent, experienced sound technician for all performances. After the city implemented this guideline, RAR amended a pre-existing District Court complaint against the city to seek damages and a declaratory judgment striking down the guideline as facially invalid under the First Amendment. The court upheld the guideline, finding, inter alia, that performers who had used the city's sound system and technician had been uniformly pleased; that, although the city's technician ultimately controlled both sound volume and mix, the city's practice was to give the sponsor autonomy as to mix and to confer with him before turning the volume down; and that the city's amplification system was sufficient for RAR's needs. Applying this Court's three-part test for judging the constitutionality of governmental regulation of the time, place, and manner of protected speech, the court found the guideline valid. The Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that such regulations' method and extent must be the least intrusive upon the freedom of expression as is reasonably necessary to achieve the regulations purpose, finding that there were various less restrictive means by which the city could control excessive volume without also intruding on RAR's ability to control sound mix.

Held: The city's sound-amplification guideline is valid under the First Amendment as a reasonable regulation of the place and manner of protected speech. Pp. 790-803.

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