Censorship is Latest Drug War Tactic as Government Seeks to Put "Rave" Dance Music Promoters in Prison

March 7, 2001 12:00 am

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Wednesday, March 7, 2001

NEW ORLEANS, LA–A local music promoter and a concert hall manager who face up to 20 years in prison and $500,000 in fines simply for staging the electronic dance music events known as “raves” said today that the charges against them amount to censorship and have asked a federal court here to dismiss the case.

“The prosecution by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is part of a novel — and entirely unconstitutional — strategy to curtail use of the drug Ecstasy, which has been associated with raves, by using federal ‘crack house’ laws,” said Arthur Lemann, a local attorney who is representing one of the defendants.

Youth culture expert Douglas Rushkoff as well as music industry professionals are speaking out against the prosecution of rave organizers as an unfounded attack on a vibrant music culture. The American Civil Liberties Union has also said that it opposes such prosecutions on constitutional grounds.

“Holding club owners and promoters of raves criminally liable for what some people may do at these events is no different from arresting the stadium owners and promoters of a Rolling Stones concert or a rap show because some concertgoers may be smoking or selling marijuana,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project.

Today’s case marks the first time that the government has used the “crack house” law to prosecute organizers of raves. Prosecutors around the country are watching the case and have already publicly announced an interest in applying the same strategy in their districts, Boyd said.

“If the government is successful in shutting down raves,” he added, “what’s to stop them from applying this tactic to other music genres, such as hip-hop, heavy metal and jazz, where drug use is known to exist?”

At a hearing today in federal district court, James D. Estopinal — known to worldwide fans of electronic music as “Disco Donnie” for his legendary rave parties — and Brian Brunet, a manager of the State Palace Theater here, will enter “not guilty” pleas and seek a dismissal of the case.

Lawyers for Brunet and Estopinal are charging a violation of their clients’ basic constitutional rights to free speech and due process. Their clients, they said, “have been targeted because of the genre of music that they promote and the unsubstantiated association of that genre with rampant drug use.”

New Orleans attorney Lemann, who will appear in court tomorrow with Brunet and Estopinal, noted that both men had fully cooperated with “Operation Rave Review,” a joint investigation by the New Orleans police department and the DEA.

But under pressure from the media and the public, according to the brief, “the DEA has revised its strategy, ignoring drug dealers, and instead prosecuting electronic music concert promoters, whom the government does not accuse of providing drugs, assisting anyone in providing drugs, or of being directly involved with drugs in any way whatsoever.”

Passed by Congress in 1986 to combat crack cocaine, the federal “crack house” law was designed to punish the owners or operators of houses used for the manufacture, storage, distribution or use of illegal drugs.

Yet Congress specifically rejected using the crack house tactic last year when it passed the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act. Passed in October 2000, the Act strengthened penalties for those caught trafficking in the drug and provided money for educational programs. Significantly, however, lawmakers eliminated a controversial provision that would have limited speech about ecstasy and other drugs.

Raves are a legitimate cultural event just like rock concerts, art exhibitions and film screenings, and can be an important outlet for young people, according to journalist and youth culture expert Douglas Rushkoff, a Professor of Media Culture at New York University and author of “Coercion: Why We Listen to What ‘They’ Say.”

“In a world where most every authentic expression of youth culture is commodified by a media conglomerate and sold back to teens at the mall, rave culture stands as one of the few, relatively uncorrupted outposts for America’s kids,” he said.

Grassroots organizing has already sprung up in response to this latest government censorship threat: the newly established Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund (EMDEF), is spreading the word to rave enthusiasts and music industry professionals.

William Patterson, an EMDEF activist, said that concert promoters are concerned about drug use in their community and have taken proactive steps to alleviate problems of drug use by some patrons. The Lindesmith Center, a drug policy organization working to broaden and better inform the public debate on drug policy and related issues, sponsors the group.

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