ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation Applauds Settlement in "Dirty Dancing" Lawsuit Against the Town of Marshall

November 13, 2008 12:00 am

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MARSHALL, NC – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) today applauded the successful settlement of a six-year-old lawsuit against the Town of Marshall, North Carolina, for unfairly imposing a lifetime ban on Rebecca Willis, prohibiting her from dancing at the Town Depot, the public music hall in Marshall.

The case, Willis v. Town of Marshall, has been nicknamed the "Dirty Dancing" case because the reason Mrs. Willis was banned for life from dancing at the Town Depot was the disapproval of her style of dancing and/or dress by members of the Town and its Depot Committee.

"I am very happy with this settlement and relieved that the lawsuit is finally over," said Rebecca Willis. "Although I personally no longer desire to attend dances at the Town Depot, today's $275,000 settlement should send a message to the Town that in the future, any government-sponsored events should allow for diversity and free expression by members of the community."

The settlement came in the wake of a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Mrs. Willis' favor this spring, finding that "a reasonable jury could conclude that the Town's actions, rather than being guided by concern for the public welfare, were actually motivated by a conscious desire to single her out for undeserved punishment" and denying the Town's request to have the case dismissed.

The Town of Marshall, North Carolina, hosts regular Friday-night events at the Marshall Depot. Mrs. Willis enjoyed attending these dances and socializing with her fellow community members until one day, in December 2000, she received a letter from the Town's mayor informing her that she was permanently banned due to vaguely alleged "inappropriate behavior." Mrs. Willis made several attempts to come to an agreement with the Town regarding how she might conform her conduct to their unspecified standards, but the Town remained unwilling to lift the ban. Her case was taken up by the ACLU-NCLF because of the important constitutional questions that it raised, including the rights to free expression, due process and equal protection, and the lawsuit was filed in 2002.

"After six federal judges have now ruled in Mrs. Willis' favor, we agree with Mrs. Willis that there is no need to proceed to trial," said her lawyer Jon Sasser with the Raleigh law firm of Ellis & Winters, serving as the ACLU-NCLF's Cooperating Attorney on this case. "This settlement should achieve Mrs. Willis' only objective, which was to stand up and fight the Town's unfair violation of her civil rights in an effort to prevent this kind of censorship from happening to anyone else in the future."

Attorneys for Rebecca Willis are: Jon Sasser and Tom Segars with the law firm of Ellis & Winters in Raleigh; Marc Tucker with the law firm of Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP in Raleigh; and Katherine Lewis Parker, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation.

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