Ward v. Rock Against Racism

RESPONDENT: Rock Against Racism
LOCATION: Washington, D.C.

DOCKET NO.: 88-226
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 491 US 781 (1989)
ARGUED: Feb 27, 1989
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1989

Leonard J. Koerner - Argued the cause for the petitioners
William M. Kunstler - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

New York City, responding to complaints of high-decibel concerts adjoining residential neighborhoods, mandated the use of city-provided sound systems and technicians for concerts in Central Park. Members of rock group claimed that the inability to use their own sound equipment and technicians in a concert in a public forum interfered with their First Amendment rights of expression.


Does the New York ordinance substituting a city-employed technician and mixing board for a performer's mixer and equipment violate the First Amendment?

Media for Ward v. Rock Against Racism

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 1989 in Ward v. Rock Against Racism

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 88-226, Benjamin R. Ward v. Rock Against Racism.

Mr. Koerner?

Leonard J. Koerner:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The opinion of the Second Circuit of the Court of Appeals is flawed in two respects.

It ignored the history leading up to the sound amplification guideline, along with the district court findings, most of which were based on uncontradicted evidence; and it applied the least restrictive alternative to suggest a hypothetical solution which had not been urged by either side up to the point of the circuit court of appeals' decision.

The bandshell, which is the subject of the sound amplification guideline, is located in the heart of Central Park.

It's surrounded by two major roads, Central park West and Fifth Avenue.

In both areas, it's heavily residential.

In addition, to the southwest of the bandshell within 150 yards, is the Sheep Meadow which was designated by the mayor as a quiet... a place for repose.

Individuals who go there cannot use radios.

They can only sit, read, et cetera.

Harry A. Blackmun:

How long ago was that?

Leonard J. Koerner:

Nineteen eighty-five, Your Honor.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Just three years ago.

Leonard J. Koerner:

Yes, that is correct.

Between 1979 and 1986--

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

xxx preceded the quiet area?

Leonard J. Koerner:

--Yes, Your Honor.

Between 1979 and 1986, Rock Against Racism conducted concerts in the bandshell.

During this period, there was a great deal of arguments between the city and the... and the RAR concerning the loudness.

The following occurred during the... during this period.

In 1983 the police attempted to lower the sound at the mixing board, and as a consequence, the sponsor got up and told the audience that the police were trying to lower the sound and it caused a confrontation.

There was some tension, and eventually the sound was lowered, and then it went back up.

This was the pattern each year.

There would be the interaction between the park officials and the promoter resulting in this tension each time.

John Paul Stevens:

Mr.... Mr. Koerner, may I ask about the tension?

Did the... the excess sound, having it too loud, violate any city ordinance or any city rule?

Leonard J. Koerner:

There was a general guideline for all parks that prohibited excessive sound.

And, indeed, summonses could be issued for that guideline and summonses were issued in this case during some of the years, but the summonses were not paid.

John Paul Stevens:

Were... were the... and the violation of that guideline is subject to penalties.