Artists fight for free speech at a cradle of US independence

AP , Wednesday 11 May 2016

A fight over free speech involving breakdance crews and bucket drummers is brewing on the steps of a historic meeting house where American colonists began the earliest calls for revolt against England.

Boston officials say they're considering imposing regulations on street performers because the breakdancers and drummers performing in front of Faneuil Hall, among the city's most visited tourist sites, are using bad language, playing music too loudly, aggressively soliciting donations and bullying other performers out.

"The behavior out there is unacceptable," said City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, a Democrat who has proposed a citywide permitting system with support from public safety officials. "I just want them to respect the people that visit our city. You can't go out there and use foul language and blast music."

But breakdance crews and drummers, who for years have drawn crowds to the plaza around a statue of Samuel Adams, have disputed complaints about their behavior. They say police have been pushing them out of tourist destinations across the city but allowing them to perform at Faneuil Hall.

"We're not the bullies. If anything, we're getting bullied by police and the city," Universal Fair, a member of the You Already Know crew, said between performances last week. "They say this is the only designated spot for us, and now they want to take that away from us."

Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh's office didn't comment this week on the breakdancers' complaints.

Other opponents warn imposing a citywide system is an overreaction that could put a damper on a vibrant busking scene.

Trying to control what artists say, even if it's considered distasteful, also infringes on free speech, a concern opponents say should have special resonance at Faneuil Hall, where Adams and other Sons of Liberty railed against British taxation, leading to the Boston Tea Party and other acts of rebellion.

"You can't regulate an artist's content," said Stephen Baird, director of Community Arts Advocates, a nonprofit arts organization. "This is one of the most historic free-speech spaces in the country, and yet they're trying to make it a First Amendment-free zone."

City officials say a system that protects performers' constitutional rights but responsibly manages public space, especially around bustling Faneuil Hall, is overdue.

William Joyce, who oversees security on city-owned property, said officers have tried to get the breakdance and drum acts to tone things down. He said there also have been complaints about marijuana, littering and crowds blocking access.

Boston repealed its laws against street performers, some of which dated to the 1850s, in 2004, after they were challenged in federal court.

But Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the privately operated shopping and dining complex adjacent to the meeting house, has long had a system for permitting acts, though performers staged protests last year when new fees and other changes were proposed.

Other cities have seen recent battles over street performers, too.

New York this year approved regulations aimed at restricting costumed characters and nearly naked painted women in Times Square and other pedestrian plazas to certain designated zones. Las Vegas did the same late last year along freewheeling Fremont Street.

Joshua Rodriguez, who has been drumming on buckets around Boston for more than a decade, said he's concerned the current permitting and application proposal leaves too much discretion with city officials. He'd prefer a lottery system like those in place at Los Angeles' Venice Beach and Seattle's Pike Place Market, where artists are randomly designated performance spots and times.

Boston resident Anthony Plant said he'd be open to seeing different acts get shots at working the plaza, which he crosses at least twice a week. But he's doesn't find anything particularly objectionable about their performances.

"They've got jokes, but I don't have a problem with it. It's all in humor," Plant said. "They're just trying to draw a crowd."

But Femke Verbeck, a graduate student visiting from Belgium, said she wasn't sure the location was ideal for their acts.

"It sort of disturbs the vibe," she said. "I'm here for the historic scene and everything."


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