Busking Is a First Amendment Right

College students Chris Waechter and Gabe Novak were told by Saugatuck police officers and other city officials that they were prohibited from playing music, or “busking,” on public sidewalks. When Gabe told police in July 2014 that he believed his activity was protected by the First Amendment, he was hauled off to jail for the weekend and charged with a felony.

Although Chris and Gabe have both performed on sidewalks in a handful of Michigan cities without incident, Saugatuck officials insist that they must obtain a “license” to play their music. The local licensing ordinance, which normally applies to established businesses that provide public entertainment, would require Chris and Gabe to apply for a license at least 60 days before performing, pay a licensing fee, obtain liability insurance and a corporate surety bond, and even provide toilet facilities and off-street parking for those who wish to listen to their music.

In December 2014 the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of these musicians, claiming that requiring them to obtain licenses before performing on a public sidewalk is an unconstitutional prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment.

In March 2015, the city agreed to a consent judgment prohibiting Saugatuck from enforcing its ordinance against buskers. We then sent a letter to 10 other Michigan cities that have similar laws, advising their representatives that busking is a First Amendment right.

To view the full 2014-2015 Legal Docket, click here.

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