Monday, October 10, 2005

Dirty Dancing and the Fourth Circuit

On Friday, the Fourth Circuit decided Willis v. Town Of Marshall.

It seems that the Town of Marshall, North Carolina, hosts regular Friday-night concerts and community gatherings at the Marshall Depot, the Town's community center. Rebecca Willis enjoyed attending the Friday-night gatherings and dancing to the music provided by the local bands. Willis thought she was really grooving, but her "unorthodox dancing style" led to a ban from attending these events. According to the JA, Willis danced in a sexually provocative manner--gyrating and simulating sexual intercourse with her partner while hunched on the floor. She also wore very short skirts and would frequently bend over while dancing, exposing her underwear, her buttocks, and her "privates."

Willis ultimately filed a section 1983 suit in federal district court. The district court denied Willis's motion for a preliminary injunction and later granted summary judgment in favor of the Town. The Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part.

Regarding Willis' First Amendment claim, the court held:

Because recreational dancing of the type at issue in this case is not expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment, the factual dispute about the nature of Willis's dancing is not material to her First Amendment claim. Thus, with regard to the Town's policy on lewd dancing, there simply is no First Amendment issue.

As for the equal protection claim, the court held that a ban on lewd or suggestive dancing is rationally related to the Town's interest in promoting a family environment at the events. However, the court vacated the grant of summary judgment on her "class of one" claim (i.e., Willis being the only person banned). Although the Town asserted that it received no complaints about any other Depot dancer, the Court held that there was no evidence in the record demonstrating the absence of complaints:

Whether complaints were or were not received is a matter wholly within the knowledge of the Town. Because the district court granted summary judgment before allowing any discovery, Willis had no opportunity to demonstrate that others situated similarly in this regard were not treated similarly.

The court also vacated the denial of a preliminary injunction because the lower court's order did not explicitly address Willis's Equal Protection claim. Hence, Willis can continue her fight to come back to the ever popular Depot in Marshall, N.C.

This is a fun case and worth a read if you have time.

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