On The Front Lines
Rutherford Institute Asks Federal Judge to Make a Permanent Ruling Declaring the Ban on ‘Busking’ at DC Metro Stations to be Unconstitutional
WASHINGTON, DC — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked a federal court to make permanent its August 2014 ruling that “busking,” the time-honored practice of street performing for donations, is protected by the First Amendment. In filing a motion for summary judgment in U.S. District Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys have asked Judge Beryl Howell to make permanent the court’s preliminary injunction forbidding WMATA from interfering with guitarist Alex Young’s “busking” near DC-area Metro stations. The motion argues that performing in public places for tips is not “commercial activity” in violation of WMATA’s Use Regulation policies and that any total ban on busking at Metrorail stations violates the First Amendment rights of Young and other street performers.
“Whether it’s a world class violinist such as Joshua Bell playing incognito at Union Station, or lesser-known guitarist Alex Young playing a few stops down the Metro line, the First Amendment applies equally,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “That’s the beauty of our Constitution—that it applies to everyone, regardless of their politics, religion, gender, wealth, or social status—and it is our hope that the court will fully embrace the principles of the First Amendment.”
Alex Young is a 27-year old guitarist who performs in public and accepts donations from passersby. Although Young does not actively solicit donations, he does set out his open guitar case in order to receive tips from members of the public who enjoy his performance. Among the places where Young performs are the above-ground, “free” areas of WMATA transit stations. According to regulations promulgated by WMATA’s governing authority, persons are allowed to engage in “free speech activities” on WMATA property, so long as the activity is in above-ground areas and is at least 15 feet from a station entrance, escalator or stairway.
According to the complaint, Young was busking at the Ballston Metro station on the sidewalk abutting N. Stuart Street in November 2013 when he was approached by a Transit Police officer and ordered to cease playing and accepting tips. The officer accused Young of engaging in “panhandling” and threatened to arrest him if he did not move elsewhere. In a separate instance in October 2013, Young was ordered to cease his public performing at the West Falls Church Metro Station. A Transit Police officer told Young that because he was accepting donations, he was engaged in “commercial activity” that is prohibited by WMATA regulations.
In filing suit against WMATA, Rutherford Institute attorneys allege that the above-ground, free areas of Metro Stations are considered traditional public forums, making them areas where speech and expression are given special protection by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Additionally, Young’s performing in public, or “busking,” is a time-honored activity that courts have consistently found to be fully protected by the constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech. Affiliate attorney Jeffrey L. Light is assisting The Rutherford Institute by representing Young.