Monday, April 30, 2007

First Amendment and Tradition in New Orleans

On April 25, a federal judge heard arguments on behalf of a New Orleans consortium of Social Aid & Pleasure clubs, aided by the ACLU, in a lawsuit protesting the city's hiking of police security fees—in some cases, triple or more from pre-Katrina rates—for second-line parades, the regular Sunday events, held September through May, at which members snake through neighborhoods, dancing to brass bands. The suit invokes the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression, claiming that parade permit schemes "effectively tax" such expression. "Should the law not be enjoined," reads the complaint filed in Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force v. City of New Orleans, "there is very little doubt that plaintiff's cultural tradition will cease to exist."
"It's a solid, core ACLU issue," says staff attorney Katie Schwartzmann. "We handle freedom of speech cases all the time. But this one is different in that the speech at issue signifies this city and an entire cultural tradition. At some point, I mean, the power to tax is the power to eliminate, right? At some point, if the government can put enough fees and enough obstacles in the way of somebody exercising their First Amendment right, then they're ultimately going to eliminate it."

Second-line parades derive from funeral rituals, transforming mourners into celebrants; the term "second-line" refers not just to up-tempo rhythms signifying spiritual rebirth, but also to the tight-knit communities who follow the musicians, dancing and clapping along. Yet now the very tradition itself appears endangered. For all the ink spilled about post-Katrina New Orleans, surprisingly little has been written about the cultural costs of this ongoing tragedy—what it means for centuries-old rituals and for jazz tradition in general, and what it says about how Americans value our homegrown arts, if we value them at all.

From Village Voice
by Larry Blumenfeld
April 24th, 2007 3:13 PM

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