On April 30, the 4th Circuit reinstated a seven-year-old lawsuit against the city of Marshall, North Carolina, by a woman who was banned from the town dance hall for allegedly dancing in a "sexually provocative manner." The court ruled that Rebecca Willis’s case should not have been dismissed, because she had not yet been able to fully investigate her claim that she was unfairly singled out for punishment and so was denied equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
Willis was banned from the "Marshall Depot" in 2001. According to the opinion, Willis "particularly enjoyed dancing" there on Friday nights. Even more particularly, she allegedly enjoyed dancing
in a sexually provocative manner — gyrating and simulating sexual intercourse with her partner while "hunch[ed]" on the floor. . . . Some of the Town’s evidence indicates that Willis wore very short skirts and would frequently bend over while dancing, exposing her [normally unexposed parts]. . . . Some community members, concerned about their children being exposed to Willis’s dancing, complained . . . [but] rather than toning down her dancing, Willis began to dance even more provocatively.
I remember writing about a previous appeal of this case years ago (pre-blog, in fact). Then, the 4th Circuit said that most of Willis’s case should be dismissed but that the equal-protection claim could go forward. I recall being entertained then by the facts of the case generally and by Willis’s argument that she constituted a "class of one" for equal-protection purposes (although the 4th Circuit agreed with this).
What I am confident I did not know then is what I learned from this recent report: Willis was 56 years old at the time.
"[The ruling] just tickles me to death," said Willis, 63 [in 2008 and so, dear God, 56 at the time of the alleged hunching and gyrating and whatnot]. "I finally get my day
in court. The town has persecuted me and took my rights away. I hope to
get justice out of this."
(Emphasis added.) I don’t want to suggest that those 55 and up should not be allowed to get jiggy with it (assuming that the allegations of jigginess are true). But maybe there could be some sort of early retirement program? Just a thought.
The 4th Circuit noted that there was at least some testimony supporting Willis’s more moderate description of her dancing, and some evidence suggesting "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." Willis’s attorney, Jon Sasser (who was hired by the ACLU of North Carolina), said that his team "look[s] forward to substantiating" that view of the town’s motivations, although strangely enough the other side’s attorney also said he thought his client would prevail. They can’t both be right, can they? Puzzling.
The decision means that, after nearly eight years of litigation and two separate appeals, a federal court in North Carolina may now be devoting itself to a trial in which a primary issue will be just how dirty the dancing really was.