Enforcing the terms of a consent decree borne of a “blood oath” undertaken 40 years ago by the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a Manhattan federal judge has ruled the band’s former drummer can never produce a biopic about the band’s final years.
The permanent injunction, issued Monday, was not the first time that U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet of the Southern District of New York has donned his robe to preside over legal matters involving the Southern rock band, which was formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1960s.
In 1988, Sweet approved a consent order establishing restrictions on how the band’s name could be used, as well as how its history could be told.
The film, which had been set to be called “Free Bird” and, later “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash,” finished filming earlier this year.
Sweet found that drummer Artimus Pyle’s work with Cleopatra Film to produce a film focusing on Pyle but prominently featuring other band members and the 1977 plane crash that took the lives of lead singer and founding member Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and several others constituted a violation of the order.
After the crash, Van Zant’s widow, now named Judy Van Zant Jenness, and fellow founding members Gary Rossington and Allen Collins entered into a “blood oath” that no one would again play under the Lynyrd Skynyrd name.
Over the following decade, the members played with other groups, but surviving members decided to come back together for a 10-year anniversary of the plane crash and entered into the consent order after a dispute over the use of the band’s name.
Sweet notes, though, that since that time the consent order hasn’t been followed to the letter.
For example, a “Rule of Three” provision requiring two surviving members to appear on stage or one surviving member along with two other original members became difficult to follow as original member aged.
These violations were not lost on the defendants: among their affirmative defenses were that the plaintiffs’ suit should be barred by the doctrine of unclean hands.
But, waving off this argument, Sweet said modifications to the consent order have been “narrowly tailored and reasonable” and that surviving members have tried to preserve the spirit of the original “blood oath.”
While Pyle wrote “under protest” next to his name on the consent order, he accepted payments under the consent order, the judge said, and otherwise did not contest the terms of the agreement.
As for the defendants’ argument that the suit infringes upon their First Amendment rights, Sweet said they are “free as a bird” to make a movie as long as it is not in league with the signatory of a consent order.
Sweet also found that the plaintiffs are entitled to attorney costs.
The plaintiffs were represented by Richard Haddad, Sandor Frankel and Pauline McTernan of Otterbourg.
“We are grateful for the judge’s thoughtful consideration of this matter, and we are very pleased that we were able to achieve this result for our clients,” Haddad said in an emailed statement.
Pyle appeared pro se and Evan Mandel and Robert Glunt of Mandel Bhandari appeared for Cleopatra.
In a statement emailed to the Law Journal, Mandel said Sweet’s ruling “strikes at the heart of First Amendment freedoms” and that, on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, his client is confident that the court will uphold the “constitutional right of all Americans to make movies about any topic they wish.”
“Cleopatra’s only goal was to make the best movie possible about an important event in the history of the music industry, and its efforts to achieve this objective are protected by the First Amendment,” Mandel said