Editorial | A new tune for street performance ordinances
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 07:09
Recently, musicians performing in public spaces around Somerville — Statue Park in Davis Square, for instance, where the Joey drops off and picks up Tufts students — have been approached by Somerville police officers.
These police officers usually tell the musicians that unless they have a permit to perform in the space, they must pack up and leave.
It seems like there’s a simple solution: if you want to perform, follow the procedures to obtain a permit from the city of Somerville for the date and time you want to serenade people walking by.
But, according to Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz, who represents the Davis Square neighborhood and who, according to a story in Somerville Patch published Sept. 17, spoke at the Somerville Board of Aldermen last week, such permits do not exist. Musicians’ only option, said Gewirtz, is to follow an outdated ordinanace that might infringe on first-amendment rights.
The only legal framework currently in place for musicians wanting to perform in public spaces in Somerville is an ordinance. The gist of the ordinance, which can be found in Section 8-121 of the town’s municipal code, is that anyone wishing to do pretty much anything in a public place — it lists meetings, sermons, lectures, addresses and performances — must be “licensed thereto by the board of aldermen” unless the performance or speech is connected to a funeral or military parade or a procession for which a police escort is provided.
But the glaring lack of any sort of procedure to obtain a permit — and that police officers ask for permits, anyway — is the main problem.
Gerwitz pointed out to Marc Levy at the blog Cambridge Day in August that the word “meeting” was a poorly chosen one that could be seen as an infringement of the First Amendment, which forbids laws from taking away an American’s right to peaceably assemble in a public place.
Other Aldermen suggested at last week’s meeting that a new policy should be created, with the noise level of performances being the primary consideration, according to the Somerville Patch story.
This new policy for obtaining street permits should come into effect as soon as possible. The current policy of needing permission from the Board of Aldermen to perform or “meet” in the square is reprehensible. The anecdotal evidence that suggests that police are demanding performance permits that do not exist only exacerbates the problem.
Music in public spaces can be wonderful in moderation, and it’s critically important that the city has a framework in place to nurture public expression of the arts.
However, there needs to be a regulatory process — both so that the city can make sure no one plays music at 5 a.m. and so that musicians who want to share their art with the public have a procedure for doing so legally.