Essence, Promoter Resolve Dispute That Led to Event Cancellation

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A legal dispute that caused the cancellation of a local bookstore’s event spotlighting black authors during the Essence Music Festival of Culture held in New Orleans has been resolved.

Lawyers for the Essence Festival issued a cease-and-desist letter June 29 to Baldwin & Co., a Black-owned coffee and bookstore business, and the mini-event organizers, Lit Diaries LLC, saying they used its trademark to mislead customers during the festival held over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Baldwin & Co. was dropped from the lawsuit on Sunday. On Tuesday, Essence announced it had reached a resolution with Lit Diaries, news outlets reported.

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Essence organizers, in a statement, said they dismissed the suit against Baldwin & Co. because of the bookstore’s “apology and swift action in this matter.” It added, however, that Essence “… is dedicated to protecting festival attendees, the public and our consumers and will take all necessary action to ensure the integrity of the Essence Festival of Culture.”

On Tuesday, Essence and Lit Diaries issued a joint statement about the situation but did not provide specific details.

“We recognize that mistakes were made on both sides and are actively collaborating with the parties involved to rectify the situation at hand,” the statement read. “We have worked diligently to untangle the multiple issues that have played out the past few days. After engaging in a deeper conversation with Essence, Lit Diaries has gained a clearer understanding of the factors that led them to pursue a Temporary Restraining Order. Through this dialogue, we have come to appreciate the complexities and considerations involved in our decision-making processes.

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“Upon reflection and discussion, it is clear that Essence’s actions were not aimed at shutting down the Lit Diaries event. Instead, Essence sought to protect consumers from any misleading promotion of the event and to maintain their intellectual property rights and brand integrity. Lit Diaries understands Essence’s commitment to safeguarding its assets, not only for itself but the community at large.”

With the suit behind it, Baldwin & Co. owner D.J. Johnson is looking forward to working with city leaders to prevent a similar situation from happening again and has already had conversations with local council members, attorney Katie Schwartzmann told The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate

At the center of the dispute is the city’s “Clean Zone” ordinance which banned events and vendors from certain areas around festival events unless permitted through the city. The ordinance, which began June 26, expired Monday. The law also prohibited other outdoor events and festivals in the area during that time period.

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City Council member Freddie King, who sponsored the ordinance creating a clean zone for this year’s festival, said that the measure was never intended to harm local businesses and that council members will revisit the issue for the future, the newspaper reported.

“Definitely as a council we will look at how this affects local vendors,” King said. “But clean zones are nothing new for a city that has large events and festivals.”

Schwartzmann, who is also director of the First Amendment Law Clinic at Tulane Law School, questioned the size of the Essence clean zone, which included the Central Business District, Warehouse District, French Quarter and parts of three neighborhoods, including Treme.

“The restriction on commercial activity of our residents in such a large zone is simply unjustified,” she said.

She said the ordinance is also problematic because it outlaws constitutionally protected speech by prohibiting the distribution of merchandise and advertisement not approved by Essence.

The Baldwin & Co. lawsuit comes on the heels of a similar one Essence filed against Spotify and local real estate developer Sean Cummings over an event that the music streaming service held during the 2022 Essence Festival at a club Cummings owns. That suit, which also names Cummings’ International House hotel, claims Spotify held an “unauthorized” event at Cumming’s Kingsway Studio “within the boundaries and time frame prohibited by the clean zone ordinance.”

Cummings has said he will ask the court to dismiss the claims.

Other cities also have seen challenges to clean zone laws which have become a standard part of incentive packages cities offer to entice the NCAA or NFL when bidding for events like the Final Four or Super Bowl, industry experts have said.

Early this year, a business owner in downtown Phoenix challenged a clean zone law there that was established in advance of Super Bowl LVII. The Arizona Superior Court struck down the law as unconstitutional.

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