Street Musicians, ACLU Sue City of St. Louis Over Permit Law Requiring Fees, Auditions
When saxophonist Frederick Walker retired from his band "Mystic Voyage" after 21 years, he decided he didn't want to hang it up completely. He took his talents to the streets, specifically the 9th Street side of the Soulard Market, to try his hand at buskering.
Courtesy ACLU Frederick Walker
"I'm 70 years old and I thought it was time to give up jumping up and down on tables and chairs," he says. "I decided to slow down."
Walker says before long a city official approached him and told him he needed a permit. There was also a required audition (though Walker never actually had to complete one since, he figures, the city official saw him playing on the street).
"He saw me. He knows I can play," says Walker.
The fee, however, was another matter.
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According to a St. Louis ordinance, any "street performer" who wishes to put out a hat and collect tips must obtain a permit. They must also audition for the street department's administrative assistant (who is a musician himself).
Walker didn't have an issue with the law last year, when the fee was $25, but as Daily RFT reported back in January, the city quadrupled the fee to $100. The effects of that have not been felt until now, as the weather warms and the buskers emerge from hibernation.
When Walker went to renew his license this spring, he balked at the cost.
via Fred Walker.
"I'm on a fixed income. I'm on social security," says Walker. "One hundred dollars is a hardship for any retired individual, for someone who's not getting a pension."
Although he went ahead and renewed, he also reached out the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri to see if the law might be a violation of his free speech. The ACLU agreed with him that it did. They filed suit against the city of St. Louis this week on behalf of Walker and another busker named Nick Pence, of Kirkwood, a guitar and banjo player.
"Plaintiffs assert that, taken together, the requirements and restrictions of Chapter
20.55 outlaw a substantial amount of expressive activity protected by the First Amendment," the complaint reads. "In addition, they claim that the requirement of an audition and the ability to summarily revoke permits provides government officials with undue discretion to deny a permit."
The filing also claims that the St. Louis law is too vague, putting the city somewhere on the level of the tiny town from Footloose.
"On its face, it applies to anyone who dares to sing or play a radio in the city whether they're trying to get tips or not," says Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. "You could be arrested for singing without a license and the fine is up to $500."
Maggie Crane, a spokesperson for the city, says she can't comment yet on the litigation but says the changes in the city's street performer ordinance came after several complaints about buskers made to aldermen and the auditions are mainly for public safety.
"We're not going to allow a flame thrower on a public street," says Crane.
The increase in fees is being attributed to the cost of paying street department workers overtime to deal with complaints from residents about obnoxious or unwanted buskers.
But Walker firmly believes he does not fall in that category whatsoever.
"I shouldn't have to pay anybody to play my music. You know, I'm not selling anything," he says. "People love me down there. I think they look forward to me."
Here's the ACLU's full complaint and check out Frederick Walker's smooth blend of popular jazz here: