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Somerville re−evaluates need for street artist permits

Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 16:03

The Somerville Board of Aldermen on April 4 will consider a city ordinance that would allow musicians and speakers to perform in Davis Square without a permit or with a permit only required in certain areas.

The ordinance would limit artists from playing past 10 p.m. or at a volume above 80 decibels, Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz said. Current laws mandate that street musicians obtain a permit from the City of Somerville to perform, but there is currently no system to acquire such approval.

She said that she proposed the new ordinance at the Board’s March 13 Legislative Matters Committee when she noticed that current laws might violate first amendment rights.

Issues arose earlier this year when police approached Davis Square street musicians and asked them to obtain permits.

“Many of [the performers] are quite good, and good or not good, it’s free entertainment for families,” Gewirtz told the Daily. “Musicians benefit because they’re able to raise money for themselves, and people benefit because they get to listen to music.”

However, she said that passing the reform has taken longer than initially expected. While Alderman at Large John Connolly said the Board of Aldermen received the proposal favorably, he is concerned that the ordinance allows outside artists to usurp Somerville performers.

“The new ordinance says we won’t worry about that now, to see how things play out,” Connolly told the Daily. “The basic fairness is that we should be promoting local talent.”

Because certain Davis Square areas attract larger crowds than others, Connolly said that he also fears street musician disputes could arise if permits are not required in certain areas, particularly outside of the Somerville Theatre and T stop entrances.

He added that he supports revamping the out−of−date legislation about street musicians, but with a different approach.

He suggested an overhauled permit system to accommodate Gewirtz’s concerns in the Board’s March 13 discussion about this legislation.

Though it is unclear when the full Board will vote on this legislation and what form it will take at that time, Alderman at Large William White said that he looks forward to updating the 1963 ordinance that hinders residents’ freedom of speech.

“We need to do a better job to promote public discourse and ventilating of issues,” White told the Daily. “Regardless of details, the view is to be more flexible at this point.”

In Harvard Square, street musicians must have a permit to perform outdoors, and they must abide by noise and time restrictions, according to Connolly. He said Somerville should mimic the Cambridge policy.

Though Connolly said he would vote in favor of the proposed ordinance without this stipulation, he hopes it can be changed in the future.

Gewirtz said that requiring permits breaches residents’ right to free speech.

She cited a 2009 decision from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle that ruled that demanding permits for street performers in public places was unconstitutional.

“Permits can be cumbersome and limit their ability to play,” Gewirtz said.

Connolly said that with the warmer weather, street musicians would help attract larger crowds to Davis Square, which is something he has worked towards during his tenure as an Alderman.

According to White, revision to this 1963 legislation is necessary to promote public discourse in Somerville, whether it is in the form of music or speech.

“To have another form of entertainment I think is another opportunity for people to show up,” Connolly said. “I feel great about the fact that Davis Square is a place where people want to be at night.”

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