Just in time for the summer tourist throngs, mimes, musicians and balloon-animal shapers have been newly empowered to bring their entertainments and tip jars to public parks.
In a ruling with potentially wide implications for street artists throughout the Western region of the United States, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday struck down curbs imposed by Seattle on those performing at the popular Seattle Center, home of the landmark Space Needle.
Michael “Magic Mike” Berger, a busker who sculpted balloon figures and performed sleight-of-hand tricks, prevailed in his challenge of the constitutionality of Seattle’s 2002 rules regulating street performers. The city had required performers to obtain permits, wear badges, refrain from soliciting gratuities, stay away from “captive audiences” and work only within designated sites.
In the decision by an 11-member en banc panel of the appeals court, a majority rejected Seattle’s argument that the rules were appropriate limits on “time, place and manner” rather than infringement on free speech.
“I think there’s going to have to be a re-evaluation by many cities, certainly in the 9th Circuit and perhaps across the country, on the validity of various laws that restrict people from speaking in public and performing in public on sidewalks and parks,” said Elena Luisa Garella, Berger’s lawyer.
Constitutional law professor Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond, in Virginia, agreed the ruling could tie the hands of officials trying to control the proliferation of street artists but predicted it would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Seattle officials suspended the restrictions after a federal judge ruled in Berger’s favor in 2005. The city appealed to the 9th Circuit, where a three-judge panel last year upheld the busker rules as permissible safety and order considerations. Assistant City Attorney Gary Keese said the city was still reviewing the 114-page en banc ruling and had yet to consider whether to drop the rules or seek Supreme Court review.