WASHINGTON, DC — In recognition of The Rutherford Institute’s successful efforts to defend the First Amendment rights of a street musician who was barred from playing at Washington Metro stations, a federal court has ordered government officials to pay more than $50,000 in attorneys’ fees arising from the lawsuit. Although street musician Alex Young did not seek any monetary damages in the lawsuit, the court’s ruling compensates Rutherford Institute attorneys for their work on the case, which was undertaken pro bono.
U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell earlier granted The Rutherford Institute’s request for a permanent injunction against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) barring Metro officials from preventing Young from engaging in “busking,” or performing in public places for tips, near DC-area Metro stations, ruling that the WMATA rule forbidding “commercial activity” near Metro stations violated the First Amendment.
Affiliate attorneys Jeffrey L. Light and Sean R. Day assisted The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Young’s First Amendment rights and will be awarded the bulk of the fees.
“At a time when Americans are being arrested for criticizing the police on social media, journalists are being muzzled at gunpoint, activists are having their communications monitored by government agents, and musicians who criticize police state tactics are being charged with making unlawful threats, this victory serves notice to the police state that free speech and the rule of law still count for something in America,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “If we are to have any hope of salvaging our freedoms, it is more critical than ever that we stand up for the rights of those who dare to speak up and challenge the status quo, whether they be artists, activists, journalists, whistleblowers or merely empowered citizens voicing their concerns about the state of our nation.”
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. According to the complaint filed in the lawsuit, 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 alleged that the above-ground, free areas of Metro Stations are considered traditional public forums, areas where speech and expression is 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. The court agreed that WMATA regulations were unconstitutional and enjoined their enforcement.