A new Lynyrd Skynyrd film can be released despite a dispute over the band's intentions after a federal appeals court ruled in its favor Wednesday.
The decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan came in a case involving a movie called "Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash."
A lower court judge decided previously the film violated a "blood oath" made by bandmembers not to exploit the group's name after a 1977 plane crash that killed its lead singer and songwriter, Ronnie Van Zant. The band's hits included "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Free Bird."
The 2nd Circuit reversed that decision, saying the movie can be distributed.
Evan Mandel, an attorney for Cleopatra Entertainment, said the filmmaker "is thrilled" the three-judge panel protected the company's right to publish a film about Artimus Pyle's survival in the plane crash. Pyle is a former drummer with the pioneering 1970s southern rock band.
"The band fails to appreciate the irony of singing about freedom while attempting to use a secret gag order to prevent other artists from expressing views with which the band disagrees," said Mandel, representing Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Records Inc. and Cleopatra Films.
"The court's decision is a victory for filmmakers, artists, journalists, readers, viewers, and the marketplace of ideas," Mandel added.
The lawsuit was brought by Van Zant's widow and others, including founding band member Allen Collins. Their lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 2nd Circuit concluded a consent order meant to resolve a 1988 lawsuit over how the band's name could be used was insufficiently precise in its language to sustain an order blocking the film's distribution.
The appeals court noted that the filmmaker was supported in its appeal by several journalism and entertainment organizations, highlighting First Amendment concerns.
But the judges said those who believed it was a classic First Amendment violation involving an unlawful prior restraint were wrong.
"It is not," the appeals court said. "No government entity has obtained a court order to prevent the making or release of the film, ... nor does the case involve a claim of defamation or invasion of privacy as to which the First Amendment imposes special requirements."
Yet, the court said, the case does implicate free speech concerns, and courts should be hesitant to block the viewing of an expressive work such as a movie prior to its public availability.
It also noted that Cleopatra did not sign the consent decree.