ACLU Says Music Should Be Heard On Georgia Streets

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
September 15, 1999 12:00 am

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ATLANTA — The American Civil Liberties of Georgia today filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta on behalf of two street musicians who claim their right to free expression is greatly impaired by restrictions on where they can perform.

At issue is a 1993 city council ordinance prohibiting the sale of articles, merchandise, produce, food or services in a public space without a business license and $50 permit. The permits limit “vending” to one location and drastically limits the locations available for use.

While the vending ordinance is generally focused on commercial activity, it specifically includes street musicians, even if they play music for free.

But playing music on sidewalks — a public forum — is protected First Amendment activity, and ACLU said in legal papers, and the ordinance violates street musicians’ free speech rights as well as their rights to due process, equal protection and the privileges and immunities of citizenship.

“Atlanta’s vending ordinance exempts all sorts of free speech activity, even selling newspapers, but tosses in street musicians as an afterthought,”said Gerry Weber, Legal Director of the ACLU of Georgia. “The government can’t pick and choose which speech to favor.”

The ACLU is asking the court to stop the city from enforcing the ordinance against street musicians or engaging in practices that infringe on the free speech rights of those who play for free. The ACLU is also seeking nominal financial compensation for damages and the costs of the lawsuit.

“American courts have repeatedly found that musical self-expression is a form of constitutionally protected speech and it is a well-established fact that sidewalks are a traditional public forum for self-expression,” said Joel Silverman, a volunteer attorney for the ACLU of Georgia.

“When the city bans non-commercial musicians from public sidewalks, not only is the cultural landscape of our city sadly diminished, but the rights of all Atlantans to engage in free speech is threatened,” he added.

One of the musicians in the lawsuit, Yusef M. Sharif, said he feels that the public exposure he gets from playing on the street is crucial to his career, even though he is only playing for donations.

“Playing on the street has afforded me the opportunity to pursue a livelihood and stay in touch with my music, which is a spiritual part of me,” said Sharif, a 60-year-old classical jazz saxophonist, composer and music instructor aid. “It allows me the opportunity to make contacts and meet people who can further my career.”

The other musician in the case, John T. Bancheri, is a student and amateur musician who enjoys the spontaneity of a “street” audience. “People have a great time dancing and singing along with my music,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to have a permit to share a good time with folks on the street.”

The two are represented by attorneys Gerry Weber, Legal Director of the ACLU of Georgia, and Hannibal Heredia and Joel Silverman from the Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird.

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