YES, BUSKING PERMITS IN THE USA ARE ILLEGAL.
” busking licenses themselves are unconstitutional.In the USA, public performance is protected by the First Amendment“
I count myself as a veteran street performer, though by no means am I among the oldest-school of us. Having performed on the streets of fourteen cities in five different countries, I feel like I have a fairly dialed show. I have a good grasp of public space, social dynamics, crowd control, and comic timing, and on a good day I can pull a monthâ€™s rent in my hat.
It also means that I have been chased around by a lot of police and private security. Like most hecklers, they usually fall back on the same lines â€“ â€śyou canâ€™t vend here, itâ€™s a safety issue, this public street is private propertyâ€ť â€“ but what they donâ€™t know is that shutting down a street show in the USA is illegal. Not only that, butÂ busking licenses themselves are unconstitutional.
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In the USA, public performance is protected by the First Amendment.Â When in public, you have as much right to sing a song called â€śThe President Is Stupidâ€ť as you have to sing a song called â€śGive Me A Dollar.â€ť Singing â€śGive Me A Dollarâ€ť with a hat on the ground does not make you a business or a vendor, even if someone puts in money; and whether that public space is publicly or privately owned has no bearing on whether you still have your First Amendment rights while there. As a matter of fact,Â it is a crime to shut down a street show under the color of lawÂ â€” i.e. to tell you that itâ€™s not legal to do so under the claim of any kind of legal authority. Source:Â Title 18, USC, Section 242: Deprivation of Rights Under Color Of Law. All this has been established and re-established all over the country by a variety of courts, including the Supreme Court, on multiple instances.
Unfortunately for street artists and our audiences,Â no police officer knows this. And half the time, even if shutting down a street show is illegal, theyâ€™ll still make up some other reason to cite you (in the UK, theyâ€™ve been using a literalistic interpretation of a century-old vagrancy law). And when a city council decides theyâ€™re going to limit the time, place, and manner of free expression in their towns, itâ€™s rare that the local population of buskers can afford to spend the time and money to fight these anti-busking laws in the court.
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A handful of precedents go like this:
â€˘ In 1970, Allen Ginsberg challenges and beats a 40-year-old anti-busker law in New York City, which had been established for reasons of â€śsafetyâ€ť regarding conflicts over performance space.
â€˘ In 1979, Goldstein vs. Town of Nantucket was decided in favor of a busker who successfully argued that street performance isnâ€™t vending.
â€˘ In 2005, a street magician won over $47,000 in damages from the City of Seattle after it argued that its private ownership of a central park allowed it to place limits on street performance.
â€˘ In 2007, a visual artistâ€™s right to sell his art at his street shows was upheld by the Supreme Court, referring to two other decisions which noted that free speech doesnâ€™t get limited just because the speaker is financially compensated.
â€˘ In 2010, a judge threw out Venice Beachâ€™s permit/lottery system which required buskers to buy into a lottery for space.