Lawsuit Raises Questions About Rights of Street Musicians

By: Jaclyn Piermarini Email
By: Jaclyn Piermarini Email

August 6, 2014

A street musician has come under fire for playing music and accepting tips near the metro station in Washington, D.C. Now, attorneys at the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute are jumping into the fight to defending what they say are his rights.

Busking, the act of playing music in public places, has been going on since ancient times. It's rare that you won't see it during a walk on the downtown mall.

But 27-year-old guitarist playing in Washington D.C. was told that playing with an open guitar case made it banned "commercial activity".

Local musician Josh Zimmerman says he sees it as a form of free speech in a public place, as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others.

"I think there are times and places where its not appropriate to play music. I wouldnt go into someone else's store or restaurant and play. But, if i want to sit out on the downtown mall, in a place where I'm not bothering anyone..."

Many locals and downtown mall visitors like Rebecca Louis see the public performance as part of the experience.

"I'm fine with it. Actually we buy cds off the musicians all the time. It's actually part of the charm of the downtown mall."

But that doesn't mean some businesses haven't seen it sometimes impact their customers.

Ten host Pansy Schulman says she has had customers complain about certain loud or repetitive musicians.

"They tend to go right next to the restaurant and some customers have complained about the loudness and then offered to pay to make them go away."

In filing suit , Rutherford Institute attorneys say that the metro stations are considered public forums, areas where speech and expression are given special protection by the u.s. constitution's first amendment.

So is it a panhandling, or is it a form of free expression? Now, it's up to the courts to decide.

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