Citing Free Speech Rights, LA Court Rejects Government's Extremist Tactics in Culture War Against Raves

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
February 4, 2002 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS–In a ruling the American Civil Liberties Union called a “major victory” for free speech rights, a federal judge today permanently blocked federal agents from banning masks, pacifiers, and glow sticks at a local dance venue as part of its nationwide war against rave concerts.

“Today’s decision should send a message to government that the way to combat illegal substance abuse is not through intimidation and nonsensical laws,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project, which filed a challenge to the ban on behalf of rave enthusiasts and performers.

Raves are electronic music concerts that the government seeks to close because some attendees use the drug Ecstasy. But that approach, Boyd said, is tantamount to shutting down rock concerts in the 1960s or jazz clubs in the 1920s because some people are using drugs.

The court today agreed. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous said that while there is a “legitimate government interest” in curtailing illegal drug use, “the government cannot ban inherently legal objects that are used in expressive communication because a few people use the same legal item to enhance the effects of an illegal substance.”

Judge Porteous also noted that “there is no conclusive evidence that eliminating the banned items has reduced the amount of ecstasy use at raves.” And in a particularly stern warning against the Attorney General’s drug war tactics, he concluded, “when the First Amendment right of Free Speech is violated by the Government in the name of the War on Drugs, and when that First Amendment violation is arguably not even helping in the War on Drugs, it is the duty of the Courts to enjoin the government from violating the rights of innocent people.”

Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana, welcomed the court’s unambiguous defense of free speech rights. “We the people should rejoice in this blow for our rights and not allow any of our freedoms to become a casualty in the war on drugs,” he said.

The ACLU filed its challenge to the policy in August 2001, after the Drug Enforcement Agency forced the owners of a prominent New Orleans dance venue to ban face masks, glow sticks and pacifiers from their facility, saying that the items constituted “drug paraphernalia.” As a result of the ban, rave attendees were forced to throw away or have confiscated personal effects in order to gain entry into dance events given at the venue.

Boyd said that the government has been holding workshops around the country citing the New Orleans case as an example of how to shut down a rave. The government has also encouraged local prosecutors to charge rave promoters as drug dealers under state and federal “crack house” laws and to engage in excessive enforcement of parking permits and other local laws in order to disrupt the events.

“Today’s ruling tells law enforcement agents that if you want to target drug use at raves, you’ve got to play by the rules,” Boyd said. “Go after the drug dealers, not the entertainers and dancers and people who are there to enjoy the show.”

The ACLU brought its case against the government on behalf of local rave enthusiasts, including a former member of the armed forces and an insurance agent whose masks and glow sticks were confiscated at a rave last summer, and an internationally renowned performance group that faced cancellation of an act incorporating glow sticks.

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