Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of every individual guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth amendment in the US constitution. Many legal cases throughout the years have battled the laws and regulations restricting busker’s rights. Major cases such as Goldstein v Town of Nantucket, Davenport v Alexandria and Friedrich v Chicago have made major strides to promote buskers rights and progress the knowledge that many people lack about the rights they have.

Picture by Fiddleheads.ca

There has been many reasons to restrict busking behavior such as public safety, noise issues, and curfews. Busking cannot be prohibited in an area where other forms of free speech are not prohibited. In the US any form of regulation on artistic free speech must not be judgmental.  Busking has been a part of society throughout history, and will continue in the future. It is important to look at legal cases and have the information regarding buskers’ rights accessible.

Review of US Rights

The First Amendment states that,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The Fourteenth Amendment states that,

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Important Busking Court Cases

Goldstein v Town of Nantucket (1979)  was a court case in Nantucket, Massachusetts. A professional musician known as the “troubadour of Nantucket”, claimed that the Town of Nantucket’s Vendor Bylaw deprived him of rights secured by the first amendment. Goldstein plays the hammer dulcimer and sings, puts open dulcimer case so that passersby’s can contribute to donations. Local businesses had complained about the competition from street artists. In response, the Town of Nantucket tried to regulate buskers as vendors. The board advised him that the new Transit Vendor Bylaw did not apply to him and that he would have to obtain a permit before he would be allowed to proceed further with playing his music. The bylaw defined vendors to include any person who engages in temporary business, dwelling, offering or providing entertainment.

Goldstein argued that due to the first amendment, the regulation included impermissible criteria for regulation of free expression. The requirement of merchants’ approval is irreconcilable with freedom of expression. It is unqualified censorship and forbidden according to the First amendment.This case was important because a law cannot be enforced that goes against the first amendment and impedes on freedom of expression. This busker knew his rights and was able to remove the bylaw from Nantucket after winning the case.

Davenport v Alexandria was a court case in 1983 in Alexandria, Virginia. A street musician named Lee Davenport was challenging the constitutionality of Ordinance No. 2609 which prohibits performances and exhibitions on the sidewalks, walkways or other public property of the central business district of Alexandria. Davenport claimed that this infringed on his First Amendment right to perform with, and lecture about, bagpipes. On this appeal, the City concluded that the district court’s legal conclusions were erroneous and that there was no legitimacy to the city’s allegations of safety issues that were alleged to be related to busking.  This case made it possible to refute claims that there were safety issues connected with busking in public places such as Alexandria, Virginia.

Friedrich v Chicago was a court case in 1985 that dealt with busking restrictions in certain areas in the city of Chicago.  A class of street performers sued the City of Chicago and challenged the constitutionality of an ordinance with claims that performers are not allowed to entertain pedestrians on Chicago’s sidewalks. The buskers claim violations of their First Amendment rights of expression and also the Fourteenth amendment rights to equal protection of the laws.

Why is this important?

Due to these major cases and the historical successes of the promotion of busker’s rights, hope for future progression is tangible. The ability of being able to appeal cases that infringe on ones rights is important to living in a free democratic country. Learning from both our mistakes and successes is important to further perpetuate the accessibility of busker’s rights and basic human rights for all. Undoubtedly in the future there will be more obstacles that buskers must face, but the right of freedom of speech will never change.