The 1977 plane crash that resulted in the death of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and band member, Steve Gaines, has been a cult-like mystery. However, a film, "The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash," was the work of Artimus Pyle, who had joined Lynyrd Skynryd in 1975 as a drummer and was one of the 20 people on the band's tour plane who survived the crash. Joe Coscarelli, "Appeals Court Greenlights Film on Lynyrd Skynyrd," New York Times, October 11, 2018...
Other members of the band and relatives sued to stop the film's release because of a "blood oath" that everyone took following the crash. Those seeking to enforce the oath include Van Zant's widow, Judith Van Zant Jenness, Gary R. Rossington (the founder of the band), and the estates of Allen Collins and Steve Gaines. The oath was one that they would never use the name "Lynyrd Skynyrd" again. In 1987, when the remaining members of the bank wanted to do another tour, they entered into a consent decree with Ms. Jenness and the others to permit limited use of the name for purposes of the tour and restricted use of the name for biographies.
In Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v, Pyle, 270 F. Supp. 3d 656 (2017), a federal district court judge side with Ms. Jenness and blocked the release of the film. Mr. Pyle appealed and in a 3-0 decision, the Second Circuit court of appeals held that the consent decree has legal problems because it prohibited Mr. Pyle from making a movie about Lynyrd Skynyrd but did not prohibit him from making a movie about his experiences with the band, including the crash. 2018 WL 4904537 (2nd Cir. 2018).
The court held that there was not a First Amendment issue because no government entity was prohibiting the release of the film. The action by the lower court in enjoining its release was simply the enforcement of a private agreement (the oath). However, the court also noted that Cleopatra was the company making the film and the effect of the injunction was to prohibit the film company from freedom of expression when it was not a party to the agreement. The script of the movie includes Mr. Pyle's discussion of his experiences, including the crash, from which he walked away. The court noted that individuals cannot be ordered by a court to not share their own biographies. The concurring opinion noted that the consent decree specifically permitted biographical use:
3. Each of the Individual Defendants ... shall have the right to exploit his ... own respective life story in any manner or medium, including ... [a] motion picture[ ] .... In such connection, each of the foregoing shall have the right to refer to “Lynyrd Skynyrd” and related matters and to describe and portray his experience(s) with “Lynyrd Skynyrd;” provided that no such exploitation of life story rights is authorized which purports to be a history of the “Lynyrd Skynyrd” band, as opposed to the life story of the applicable individual.
The film, long awaited, will now see the light of day.
Was the "blood oath" a contract?
Was there a First Amendment issue with the consent decree?
What exception exists for restraints on books, films, and biographies about famous people?
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