Columbia, S.C. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the City of North Myrtle Beach, Mayor Marilyn Hatley, and Tommy Dennis, chief of the North Myrtle Beach Department of Public Safety. The lawsuit alleges that the City’s noise ordinance is an unconstitutional violation of free speech, criminalizes vast swaths of protected speech, and is so vague that it promotes discriminatory enforcement.
The lawsuit seeks to stop enforcement of the amended noise ordinance, which was passed by the City in October of 2021. The amended ordinance prohibits the playing of profane, vulgar, or obscene music at a volume louder than 30 decibels (roughly equivalent to a quiet rural area, leaves rustling, or a whisper) during the day and 50 decibels (quieter than an air conditioner) at night. Other sounds can be broadcast at up to 80 decibels (similar to a gas-powered lawn mower) during the day and 60 decibels (the volume of a normal conversation) at night, and certain activities are exempt from the noise restrictions altogether.
The Plaintiff in the case owns Sky Bar, a nightlife venue in North Myrtle Beach. Sky Bar was ticketed several times under a previous version of the ordinance and has received several warnings under the ordinance in its current form.
“The First Amendment protects free speech, including musical expression,” said Meredith McPhail, staff attorney with the ACLU of South Carolina. “Under our Constitution, the government can’t regulate protected speech just because they don’t like it.”
By prohibiting what they deem offensive music, even played at low volumes, the City of North Myrtle Beach criminalized substantial amounts of protected speech. The United States Supreme Court has explained that “music is one of the oldest forms of human expression” and has held that “the Constitution prohibits any … attempts” to “censor musical compositions to serve the needs of the state.” Additionally, the amended ordinance is vague and places the task of determining whether conduct is criminal - versus merely unpopular - entirely within the discretion of law enforcement.
The case was filed in the United States District Court for the District South Carolina Florence Division.