Saturday, May 25, 2024

Did Metro's denial of the Morgan Wallen sign violate the First Amendment?

 by Rod Williams, May 24, 2024- At this week's Council meeting, the Council voted to deny a sign to a new downtown bar for no other reason than they do not approve of the name of the person on the sign.

There are a whole host of bars downtown carrying the names of County artist. This bar would have been an addition to those carrying the name of Garth Brooks, John Rich, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Blake Sheldon, Alan Jackson, Kid Rock and others.

Every time a sign overhangs a public right of way, the sign has to be approved by the Metro Council by resolution. This is such a routine action that I have viewed these resolutions as a waste of time and have thought that instead of requiring legislative action, that approvals of signs overhanging the right of way should be done by an agency of Metro, as a matter of course, just like getting many other kinds of government permissions. 

The sign in question had been approved by the appropriate government agencies such as codes and the sign carried the necessary insurance. The sign resolution had the approval of the Planning Commission, the Planning and Zoning Committee, and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. This should have been routine. The only problem with this sign is that it carried the name of Morgan Wallen.

Morgan Wallen, a few weeks earlier, had been drunk in a downtown bar and threw a chair off of a balcony. This bad behavior should be punished and likely will be. He could have injured or possibly killed someone. He was arrested on three felony charges of reckless endangerment and is awaiting trial. However, that incident has nothing to do with approval of a sign bearing his name but that was cited as one of the reasons for not approving.

Another reason for denial was that back in 2021, he was caught using the word "nigger." Again, he was drunk, and he says he used it playfully when with friends who were all drunk and rowdy. He apologized, appeared on various news shows saying how sorry he was, and said that he had an epiphany that to use that term was harmful. He went to 72 hours of rehab and gave money to a Black music organization.  I don't know if his mea clupa was sincere or not but he did all he could do to make amends. 

I get it. Morgan Wallen has a drinking problem and may not be a very nice person. He may be a bigot. He certainly is not a role model. Then again, many Rock and County artist and certainly Rap artist are not role models. When Metro Council approves a sign, I never thought of it as an approval of the character of the person whose name is on the sign. I assumed it was to ensure that the sign was safe. 

If we start making the approval of a sign to signify approval of the organization or person whose name is one the sign, where does this end? Will the Council approve the sign of churches that perform gay marriage but disapprove the signs of churches that condemn homosexuality as a sin? What if rapper Carti B who sang about "wet ass pussy," wanted to open a bar with a sign overhanging the sidewalk. Would the Council approve the sign? If so, it that an endorsement of the lewd lyrics of her song? Or what if any number of Rap artist who have criminal records and who use the word "nigga" in their lyrics wanted to open a bar? Would approval of a sign bearing their name, imply approval of this variation of the word "nigger?" What if a gun store wanted a sign overhanging a sidewalk? Could we disapprove the sign because many in Nashville do not like guns? What if former president Trump wanted to open a hotel in Nashville? Could Nashville deny the hotel a permit because most Nashvillians do not approve of Trump?

I am not an attorney, but it sure seems to me that basing government permission to engage in advertising based on approval of the message or the messenger or the legal product is a violation of the first amendment. I wish a civil liberties organization would sue Nashville over this. I would contribute to the organization. 

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