On The Front Lines
VICTORY: Court Orders Metro Authorities to Allow âBuskerâ Street Musician to Continue Performing at DC Metro Stations
August 15, 2014
WASHINGTON, DC â In a resounding win for the First Amendment, a federal court judge has granted a request by Rutherford Institute attorneys to enjoin the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) from preventing guitarist Alex Young from engaging in âbuskingâ near DC-area Metro stations.
In granting the request, Judge Beryl Howell rejected the governmentâs claim that the time-honored practice of busking, or performing in public places for tips, is âcommercial activityâ in violation of WMATAâs Use Regulation policies.Â By the order, Judge Howell has required WMATA officers to stop instructing Young that he cannot engage in busking near Metro terminals for the duration of the pending lawsuit.
Rutherford Institute attorneys filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in July 2014, arguing that the above-ground, âfreeâ areas of WMATA transit stations where Young performs are traditional public forums where members of the public are entitled to engage in speech and expression under the First Amendment.
The judgeâs order inÂ Alex Young v. Richard SarlesÂ is available atÂ www.rutherford.org.
âIn the midst of the crisis taking place in Ferguson, where even journalists are being muzzled at gunpoint, this victory serves notice to the police state that free speech and the rule of law still count for something in America,â said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author ofÂ A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. âIf 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 or whistleblowers.â
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, âfreeâ areas of WMATA transit stations.Â According to regulations promulgated by WMATAâs governing authority, persons are allowed to engage in âfree speech activitiesâ 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 âpanhandlingâ and threatened to arrest him if he did not move elsewhere.Â 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 âcommercial activityâ 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, areas where speech and expression is given special protection by the U.S. Constitutionâs First Amendment.Â Additionally, Youngâs performing in public, or âbusking,â 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 in its defense of Young.