Ward v. Rock Against Racism

Decision Date22 June 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-226,88-226
Citation491 U.S. 781,105 L.Ed.2d 661,109 S.Ct. 2746
PartiesBenjamin R. WARD, et al., Petitioners v. ROCK AGAINST RACISM
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

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.

(a) The guideline is content eutral, since it is justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech. The city's principal justification—the desire to control noise in order to retain the sedate character of the Sheep Meadow and other areas of the park and to avoid intrusion into residential areas has nothing to do with content. The city's other justification, its interest in ensuring sound quality, does not render the guideline content based as an attempt to impose subjective standards of acceptable sound mix on performers, since the city has expressly disavowed any such intent and requires its technician to defer to the sponsor's wishes as to mix. On the record below, the city's sound quality concern extends only to the clearly content-neutral goals of ensuring adequate amplification and avoiding volume problems associated with inadequate mix. There is no merit to RAR's argument that the guideline is nonetheless invalid on its face because it places unbridled discretion in the hands of city enforcement officials. Even granting the doubtful proposition that this claim falls within the narrow class of permissible facial challenges to allegedly unconstrained grants of regulatory authority, the claim nevertheless fails, since the guideline's own terms in effect forbid officials purposely to select an inadequate system or to vary sound quality or volume based on the performer's message. Moreover, the city has applied a narrowing construction to the guideline by requiring officials to defer to sponsors on sound quality and confer with them as to volume problems, and by mandating that amplification be sufficient for the sound to reach all concert ground listeners. Pp. 791-796.

(b) The guideline is narrowly tailored to serve significant governmental interests. That the city has a substantial interest in protecting citizens from unwelcome and excessive noise, even in a traditional public forum such as the park, cannot be doubted. Moreover, it has a substantial interest in ensuring the sufficiency of sound amplification at bandshell events in order to allow citizens to enjoy the benefits of the park, in light of the evidence that inadequate amplification had resulted in the inability of some audiences to hear performances. The Court of Appeals erred in requiring the city to prove that the guideline was the least intrusive means of furthering these legitimate interests, since a "less-restrictive-alternative analysis" has never been—and is here, again, specifically rejected as—a part of the inquiry into the validity of a time, place, or manner regulation. See Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293, 104 S.Ct. 3065, 3069, 82 L.Ed.2d 221; Regan v. Time, Inc., 468 U.S. 641, 104 S.Ct. 3262, 82 L.Ed.2d 487. The requirement of narrow tailoring is satisfied so long as the regulation promotes a substantial governmental interest that would be achieved less effectively absent the regulation, and the means chosen are not substantially broader than necessary to achieve that interest. If these standards are met, courts should defer to the government's reasonable determination. Here, the city's substantial interest in limiting sound volume is served in a direct and effective way by the requirement that its technician control the mixing board. Absent this requirement, the city's interest would have been served less well, as is evidenced by the excessive noise complaints generated by RAR's past concerts. The city also could reasonably have determined that, overall, its interest in ensuring that sound amplification was sufficient to reach all concert-ground listeners would be served less effectively without the guideline than with it, since, by providing competent technicians and adequate equipment, the city eliminated inadequate amplification problems that plagued some performers in the past. Furthermore, in the absence of evidence that the guideline had a substantial deleterious effect on the ability of performers to achieve the quality of sound they desired, there is no merit to RAR's contention that the guideline is substantially broader than necessary to achieve the city's legitimate ends. Pp. 796-802.

(c) The guideline leaves open ample alternative channels of communication, since it does not attempt to ban any particular manner or type of expression at a given place and time. Rather, it continues to permit expressive activity in the bandshell and has no effect on the quantity or content of that expression beyond regulating the extent of amplification. That the city's volume limitations may reduce to some degree the potential audience for RAR's speech is of no consequence, since there has been no showing that the remaining avenues of communication are inadequate. Pp. 802-803.

848 F.2d 367 (CA2 1988), reversed.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., concurred in the judgment. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 803.

Leonard J. Koerner, New York City, for petitioners.

William M. Kunstler, New York City, for respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

In the southeast portion of New York City's Central Park, about 10 blocks upward from the park's beginning point at 59th Street, there is an amphitheater and stage structure known as the Naumberg Acoustic Bandshell. The bandshell faces west across the remaining width of the park. In close proximity to the bandshell, and lying within the directional path of its sound, is a grassy open area called the Sheep Meadow. The city has designated the Sheep Meadow as a quiet area for passive recreations like reclining, walking, and reading. Just beyond the park, and also within the potential sound range of the bandshell, are the apartments and residences of Central Park West.

This case arises from the city's attempt to regulate the volume of amplified music at the bandshell so the performances are satisfactory to the audience without intruding upon those who use the Sheep Meadow or live on Central Park West and in its vicinity.

The city's regulation requires bandshell performers to use sound-amplification equipment and a sound technician provided by the city. The challenge to this volume control technique comes from the sponsor of a rock concert. The trial court sustained the noise control measures, but the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. We granted certiorari to resolve the important First Amendment issues presented by the case.


Rock Against Racism, respondent in this case, is an unincorporated association which, in its own words, is "dedicated to the espousal and promotion of antiracist views." App. to Pet. for Cert. 3. Each year from 1979 through 1986, RAR has sponsored a program of speeches and rock music at the bandshell. RAR has furnished the sound equipment and sound technician used by the various performing groups at these annual events.

Over the years, the city received numerous complaints about excessive sound amplification at respondent's...

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