DOUGHERTY AND BURGER: The First Amendment Protects Morgan Wallen’s Bar Sign

When people think of “Broadway” perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is a section in Manhattan near Times Square with its many wonderful theaters. But there is another “Broadway” that some would argue is just as important: The Broadway Historic District, known as Lower Broadway, nestled near the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee — home to some of the most famous honky-tonk bars in the world.

Recently, the city was thrust into the national spotlight when the Nashville Metro Council voted to not approve a business sign for country music star Morgan Wallen’s new bar and restaurant — This Bar & Tennessee Kitchen — which is set to open Memorial Day weekend. 

The reason Nashville’s Council offered for rejecting Wallen’s sign had nothing to do with safety or aesthetics — the usual reasons a local government might shoot down a proposed piece of signage. Instead, the Council voted 30-3 that Wallen could not erect a business sign in front of his new bar because it had his name on the sign.

It’s worth noting that pretty much every honky-tonk on Broadway has a large sign outside advertising each location, and many of them bear the names of their country star owners.

Nashville’s Metro Council appears to be in clear violation of the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this very issue a few years ago in a case called Reed v. Town of Gilbert. The Court held in that case that a city could legally regulate a sign if the regulation dealt solely with time, manner, and place — known as content-neutral speech regulation. However, government was forbidden to regulate the communicative message of the sign itself — known as a content-based restriction. And the Court ruled unanimously that this was the law under the First Amendment; it wasn’t even a close call.

The Nashville Metro Council is on shaky legal ground by denying Wallen his sign. Indeed, rejecting Wallen’s proposed sign — which said “Morgan Wallen’s This Bar” — because his name was on the sign is an unconstitutional content-based restriction that violates the First Amendment.

Here are a few examples of councilmembers celebrating their blatant violation of the First Amendment — Councilman Jordan Huffman and Councilwoman Delishia Danielle Porterfield

Setting aside the First Amendment issue, the Nashville Council’s action rejecting Wallen’s sign is nonsensical. There are many neon-lit honky-tonks lining Lower Broadway to which locals and the swarm of tourists flock. The public should be able to know basic information, such as where their favorite country star’s bar and restaurant is located. There are many stars who have their own establishments on Lower Broadway — Kid Rock, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert to name a few. Having a sign that reads “Morgan Wallen’s This Bar” makes perfect sense when the public is trying to actually locate his bar — “This Bar” is also one of Wallen’s biggest hit songs.

To be sure, Wallen has had more than one public fall from grace in his 31 years of life. He has publicly apologized (rightfully so) for being caught on video using an unacceptable and vile racial slur. He has had other run-ins with law enforcement as well, and is currently facing criminal charges after allegedly throwing a chair over a balcony at a downtown Nashville establishment.

But regardless of how you feel about Morgan Wallen personally, the First Amendment protects people like him against arbitrary government restrictions. Free speech is for everyone.

In other words, if Joe Biden wanted to open a new bar on Broadway and put up a sign that says, “Biden’s Bar,” he should be able to do so. Likewise, if Donald Trump wanted to open a honky-tonk near the Ryman and erect a neon sign that says, “Trump’s Tavern,” then he should be able to do so as well. Nashville’s Council would do well to welcome both and avoid making arbitrary and illegal decisions like it did with Wallen’s sign.

Unfortunately, the arbitrary manner in which the council refused to approve Wallen’s sign seems to be the general rule lately, not the exception. Consider that two years ago, the council voted to reject Tennessee’s courtship of the 2024 Republican National Convention. The council did not want the GOP Convention in Nashville for political reasons, so now it’s headed to Wisconsin.

Our state has a storied musical tradition. This musical history is represented geographically across each of Tennessee’s three Grand Divisions: Appalachian bluegrass from the mountains in the East; country music and the Grand Ole Opry in the Middle; and the Delta blues in the West on Beale Street, where W.C. Handy first brought this form of music to the world — not to mention other Tennessee greats known all over the world like Elvis, Dolly and Tina Turner.

The many great artists with a connection to Tennessee have used their talent and voices to uplift and enhance American culture. And, like those artists whose voices could not be silenced in the past, Nashville’s council should not silence Morgan Wallen’s voice as he attempts to express it through his sign on Lower Broadway. 

Buck Dougherty is Senior Counsel at Liberty Justice Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public-interest litigation law firm that seeks to protect economic liberty, private property rights, free speech, and other fundamental rights. Mr. Dougherty has an active First Amendment practice at LJC, is a native Tennessean and lives in Memphis. 

Chris Burger lives in Nashville and is the Founder & CEO of Rotunda Public Affairs. He served as a senior campaign official in Bill Lee’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign and previously worked in Governor Lee’s administration. Buck and Chris both enjoy the diverse and rich musical heritage for which Tennessee is known.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.

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