Music Right Next Door Legal Fund

Support ongoing litigation to preserve everyone's Constitutional right 
to enjoy live music (or any other private activity) in their living rooms

What is this all this about?

It's about a local Township that believes that the existing Zoning Ordinance prohibits residents from hosting house concerts in their living rooms.  Cindy Harris and Rick Heath feel strongly that a house concert is no different than any other kind of private party and that the Township's attempts to prevent them from inviting guests to their home to share a potluck supper and an evening of music violate their Constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

What is a house concert? 

It's a party where friends gather to share live music and potluck food.  Many people are familiar with the idea of a football party where guests "chip in" for pizza and beer and watch the game on the widescreen TV.  At a house concert, guests bring the food and chip in for the music.

How did this all get started?

After hosting house concert parties for years, in 2003 Cindy and Rick received a letter from O'Hara Township informing them that house concerts were prohibited under the local Zoning Ordinance (see Sections 72-1.3 and 72-5.22) and ordering them to cease and desist. There had been an anonymous complaint from a neighbor that an upcoming house concert had been advertised in the newspaper and on a web site. In fact the article in the paper was not an advertisement but the result of a slow news day and an alert reporter who had interviewed Cindy when he discovered that she was hosting an "Ignore the Superbowl Party" featuring live music in her living room. The web site was one that Cindy had been constructing so that she could send a link to extensive information resources about her upcoming concerts and although it was listed in some search engines, it rarely received enough visits to equal the number of e-mailed invitations.

Why did you file a Federal civil rights complaint?

The short answer is that we were left with no other options.  

At the appeal hearing in 2003, Cindy specifically brought up the point that she believed that if the Township were to try to enforce the cease and desist order, they would violate her rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution.  The cease and desist order specifically prohibited "commercial activity," and the legal finding issued at the conclusion of the appeal hearing ordered them not to continue hosting parties in "the manner in which they had been handled heretofore."  Cindy and Rick took down the web site about their house concerts, reduced the frequency from about 8 parties per year down to 3-5, and were careful to screen everyone who asked to be added to the invitation list.

For the next three years, nothing happened, but in February of 2006, the Township sent a letter stating that they had become aware that we were about to host several more concerts and stating that "should these advertised concerts, or any other concerts occur, you will be in violation of the Cease and Desist order" and promising to fine them $500 for each violation.  Since the concerts were not "advertised" other than via e-mail to a list of people they knew, Cindy and Rick were puzzled, but certain that a simple discussion would suffice to clear the matter up.  

But the Township refused to discuss the matter, referring Cindy and Rick's lawyer to a section of the Township Zoning Ordinance (72-1.3) that stated "Uses of land, buildings or structures not clearly permitted in the various zoning districts are prohibited." Under this theory, since "house concerts" are not listed as a permitted use in R-2 zones (section 72-5.22), they are prohibited.  The only problem is that there was also no specific permission for other common events:  prayer meetings, book clubs, Superbowl parties, and private parties in general were not listed either.  And since there was no way to tell from the outside of the house whether Cindy and Rick were hosting a political fundraiser, a knitting club, or a house concert, the only way to enforce the cease and desist order would be to have an officer knock on the door and ask what was going on.  Cindy and Rick believe that if this were to happen it would be a violation of their  Constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.  They also believe that for the Township to threaten to fine them before any documented violation has taken place was in and of itself prior restraint of their Constitutional right to assemble and also of their right to free speech, since the Supreme Court has held music to be a form of free speech.

The statute of limitations to appeal the cease and desist order appeared to have long since expired.  Even if it had not, the issue was not the validity of the cease and desist order, but the Township's violation of First Amendment rights in their attempt to enforce the order, and this was not an issue suitable for a simple appeal.  So in the absence of any willingness on the part of the Township to discuss the matter further, Cindy and Rick felt that they had no choice other than to file a Federal civil rights complaint.

What is the current status of your Federal civil rights complaint?

In December 2006, the Federal judge issued an order dismissing the complaint on the grounds that it was "not ripe for review."  Cindy and Rick believe that the Court was mistaken in its analysis of the situation and reading of the precedents, so they appealed to the Federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals.  A confidential mediation process recommended by the Appeals Court broke down in May, 2007 and the Court issued a briefing order.  The appeal brief was filed in August, 2007.  Since the brief was longer than the Court requested, a request to exceed the word count was also filed.  Usually these requests are routinely granted, but in our case counsel for the Township filed a motion to deny the request to exceed the word count.  That motion was resolved in our favor in early November.  A response brief was submitted by the Township, and we replied to that.  Since neither party requested oral arguments, as of November 21, 2007 we are waiting for the Court to rule on the appeal.  It's possible that they could request oral arguments, but even if they don't, it's likely that it will be at least six months and perhaps as long as a year before  an opinion is handed down.

How does the Music Right Next Door Legal Fund work?

The Music Right Next Door Legal Fund has been established as a trustee account at PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The fund agreement specifies that upon submission of legal bills, fines and any other financial obligations related to this matter, the Trustee will use the funds in the account to satisfy those obligations. When the matter is completely resolved, the agreement specifies that any funds remaining will be donated to one or more 501(c)(3) organizations that promote live acoustic music or related issues.

The Fund is being managed by Kathy L. Hess & Associates, a Pittsburgh CPA firm. Inquiries about the fund can be directed to Kathy Hess.

To make a donation, please print this form and mail your check and this form to:

Music Right Next Door Legal Fund
c/o Kathy Hess and Associates
The St. Clair Building
Suite 305
1725 Washington Rd.
Pittsburgh, PA 15241

What can I do to help?

What you can do depends on who you are and what you are willing and able to do.
1. Make a donation. Just print out this form and mail it with your contribution. Even if you can only donate whatever you'd normally contribute to attend a single house concert that would be enough.  We'd love to raise $10 from each of 1000 people by the end of 2007.  This is all about individuals banding together to support First Amendment rights in a big way.

2. If you are a house concert host, you can use this small poster, these business cards, this form, and a basket to encourage those who attend your parties to donate to the Music Right Next Door Legal Fund. Set the basket, sign and cards next to the basket you use to collect contributions for your performer and tell people what it's for. Take whatever lands in the basket, fill out the form, and send the form and a check for the amount collected to the Fund.

3. If you are a house concert attendee or a performer and your house concert host is willing, you can take the same materials with you to a house concert and either act as the coordinator yourself or allow the host to fill out the form and mail it in. Find a song to go with the story, too. Kathy Moser wrote a dandy one at a house concert here in Pittsburgh, and Cindy and her daughter have made a recording.

4. If you vend at festivals
or anywhere else where there's a lot of traffic, once again you can use the poster, cards and a basket to encourage donations and send them along.


5. If you have a web site for your house concert series or your own performances, or if you blog, you can display this graphic on your web site or blog and link to this address. You can also Share on Facebook

6. Buttons are available to give away to anyone who makes a donation. They'll be a great adjunct to the basket and the cards, so if you'd like me to send you a batch of 10 for starters, drop me a note with your address

New!  The Pitsburgh Post-Gazette has published an article about our house concert to benefit the Lauri Ann West Memorial Library.  And PG commentator Ruth Ann Dailey wrote a response to that article that lays out clearly most of the key issues.

Read a great article about house concerts at Musician's Atlas

 Additional background information on this case:

Thanks to Ivan Stiles for the wonderful graphic! Please feel free to support our efforts by including this graphic on your web site with a link back to this address.