Street musicians get reprieve after ACLU objections

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The City Council is expected to approve new rules to quiet street performers downtown. | Sun-Times file photo

Street musicians who drive downtown residents and employees to distraction will not be silenced just yet along Michigan Avenue and State Street, thanks to the strenuous legal objections of the ACLU and a last-minute plea from musicians.

In a letter to aldermen before the City Council meeting Wednesday, ACLU senior staff counsel Rebecca K. Glenberg left little doubt of a legal challenge.

The ACLU’s warning apparently got through to downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).

After meeting with a group of street musicians on Tuesday, Reilly agreed to put off a vote on the crackdown in hopes of hammering out a compromise.

“It became clear street musicians are very interested in adding new CTA and Park District locations downtown — buffered from high-rises and downtown office density — as performance zones,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I made a commitment to the street performer community to find new locations that allow them to ply their trade, while also providing relief to downtown residents and office workers.”

Reilly said he and co-sponsor Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) are determined to work with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to reach a “win-win solution for all stakeholders.”

“Like our colleagues, Ald. Hopkins and I appreciate the fact that street performers add to the downtown experience, and we will spend the next few weeks working to strike a fair balance,” Reilly wrote.

The ordinance championed by Reilly and Hopkins (2nd) and approved by the License Committee, would essentially ban street performers on downtown’s two busiest streets.

The Michigan Avenue corridor would stretch between Cedar and Balbo, enlarging a ban that’s been in effect for a decade between Delaware and Superior. The State Street zone would run between Huron and Jackson Boulevard.

In those areas, no street performance would be allowed that is “audible to a person with normal hearing more than 20 feet away.” That essentially is a ban since street music, acting and recitations are “effective, only if they are loud enough to attract and maintain an audience on a public sidewalk,” Glenberg said.

“The street performer ordinance already has serious First Amendment problems. The proposed amendments to the ordinance would add new restrictions that cannot satisfy constitutional standards, leaving the city open to a strong likelihood of litigation,” Glenberg wrote.

“The city should not impose those new restrictions on street performers and should, instead, eliminate the current permit requirement and the prohibition on performances in Millennium Park.”

Glenberg noted that “public sidewalks, like parks, are traditional public forums.” The government “may not regulate speech” in those areas “unless it is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

Mayoral press secretary Matt McGrath said Emanuel “enjoys street performances and believes they add to this city’s unique cultural fabric.”

“Our team is working with Alderman Reilly on balancing the needs of downtown residents and businesses with preserving these musicians’ rights and ability to make some money – and we’re optimistic we’ll be able to strike that balance,” McGrath wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

At a License Committee hearing last week, noise-weary constituents who have had it with incessant drumming and saxophone playing showed up in force.

They described listening to the “Bucket Boys” — not one group, but three of them — for 10 hours a day. They talked about being unable to enjoy life’s simple pleasures — talking on the phone, watching TV, listening to their own music or reading a book — while enduring that racket.

Matt Borkowski told aldermen he had personally logged 70 complaints over the last year from his home at 20 N. State. That’s because the sheer number of performers and the noise they generate has “increased aggressively.”

“I can hear them living a block away, seven stories up, with all of my doors and windows closed. And I can hear them clearly over my television in any room that I am in, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Borkowski said.

South Side Ald. David Moore (17th) has branded the ordinance a political placebo.

“This will be a feel-good thing when it passes for you. Yay,” Moore said, clapping his hands in mock applause before casting the only “no” vote in committee.

“Then you get out there and you’re back in the same situation. . . . If they’re not enforcing [the permit requirement], you think they’re . . . gonna start enforcing something new? . . . Let’s not just layer something on.”

License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) put Reilly and Hopkins on the defensive when she referred to the unrelenting gang violence that recently killed three innocent youngsters.

She accused her colleagues of worrying about “noise from the guys on the streets and we’re hearing bullet shots every day in our neighborhoods. Which one would I rather have?”

Reilly countered: “I don’t mean to trivialize the role of the police department or the need for them to address violent crime in communities struggling with it the most.”

But he added: “For the officers dedicated to the beats in the downtown area, we’d like them to prioritize this as a quality -of-life concern.”

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