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Political Animal

Performing Seal

By Brian Morton | Posted 8/16/2006

Years ago, I covered the municipal government of Washington, D.C. This was back in the bad old Marion Barry days, when a shift covering politics at what is now the John Wilson District Building would make you leave at the end of the day with your head shaking in dismay or laughter. But being a Maryland resident, I could always shake it off by saying, "Well, at least I don't live here."

I don't often cover Baltimore City politics in this space--it's sort of like covering collegiate student government, except without the smell of puke in the dormitory hallways--but you can count on all city governments to do things that are useless, ridiculous, or unconstitutional every now and then. The D.C. government back in the 1980s was famous for proposing more unconstitutional legislation per session than you'd think any one body could in a year. Thankfully, Baltimore City lawmakers aren't that bad. This year, however, they did pass a law that grabbed this writer by his small-l libertarian sensibilities and shook him until he had built up a good head of anger.

As you read in Charles Cohen's Mobtown Beat article last week ("Dumb Show," Aug. 9), the City Council has decided that it wants to attract street performers to Baltimore, in order to create a more hospitable civic atmosphere, similar to the big European cities and U.S. tourist destinations with good street entertainment. To do this, they decided they needed to "audition" and license performers. Once approved by the city, each performer has to tell the city where and when he or she plans to perform--in advance--and then pay $25 for the privilege of a license.

Even though, as Cohen writes, the council members aren't looking to judge artistic merit and ostensibly say they're looking out for the best interests of the street performers, the severe and unavoidable fact of the matter is that the city has just decided that it can charge a citizen $25 to exercise his or her right to utilize the public streets and open spaces the same as any other citizen. Except in this instance, if those citizen-performers are trying to add to the ambiance of their city, they might be slapped with a $500 fine if they aren't licensed to do so.

As Downtown Partnership spokesman Michael Evitts told Cohen, "It's hard sometimes to determine whether you're a legit musician or [someone] trying to panhandle." Well, now! That "legit musician" business sounds a little judgmental from someone from a quasi-governmental body, doesn't it?

In 1982, a bagpiper by the name of Lee Davenport sued the city of Alexandria, Va. over its overzealous prohibition of street performance. According to Be a Street Magician author David Groves, who wrote about the incident, after three years of appeals the city lost wound up paying Davenport $40,000 and getting a stern rebuke from the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which said that it wouldn't look kindly on any further attempt to except the Supreme Court's previous decisions.

The Fourth Circuit, one of the most conservative circuits in the country, but also one with a very strong tradition of upholding First Amendment rights. If Baltimore City wants to wage yet another fight over a lost cause, it can take this case to court, just like Alexandria did, the next time the police hassle the a performer who doesn't have a "license." But what kind of message will that actually send to street performers?

Baltimore could follow the model of a big city that knows how to deal with street performers: San Francisco. According to Groves, SF makes buskers read a single sheet of rules and sign a form that says they have read and understood them--and that's it. And if Baltimore really wants to be a good street-performing destination, the easiest thing to do would be to educate the police. Because no little laminated badge will stop an officer with an authority hard-on from hassling a guy with a guitar or a juggler with a wise-ass sense of humor.

Former city councilwoman and current state Del. Catherine Pugh (D-40th District) might have had the city's best interests at heart when she originally sponsored this law, but she missed out on the Law of Unintended Consequences. And that law is a corollary to a rule that you probably already know: No good deed goes unpunished. Except in this case, the people getting punished are the ones trying to do what they have as much a right to do on the streets as anyone else.

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