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Aldermen: Davis Square Street Musicians Pestered By Police, Raising Constitutional, Noise Issues

When Davis Square's alderman looked into the city's ordinance about street musicians, she discovered on the books what is, in her mind, a potential threat to freedom of speech.

Davis Square street musicians have been complaining about their treatment at the hands of police, according to Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz, who represents the Davis Square neighborhood.

Gewirtz, speaking at the Somerville Board of Aldermen meeting Thursday night, said, "It came to a boiling point for some musicians, this summer, who had been approached by the police and told they needed to get a permit to play their instruments."

The problem, according to Gewirtz, is these permits don't exist. "I am informed there is no such permit issued by the city. So, to a certain extent, it was somewhat of an intimidation tactic, [that's] how it felt to some of these musicians," she said.

When it comes to street musicians, Gewirtz said, "In the first place, the noise issues are important to keep in mind."

On the other hand, "people should be afforded the opportunity to add something to our squares, and in particular I'm talking about Statue Park in Davis Square, where I think the musicians add a lot. They add to the flavor of the square," she said.

Gewirtz said she looked into the city's policy on issuing permits to street musicians, and "I was really concerned when I read what our actual ordiance says."

She read the applicable ordinance, which says this:

No MEETING shall be held and no person shall deliver a sermon, lecture, address or discourse, or shall sing or play or perform on any musical instrument, in a street or other public place, except in connection with a funeral or a military parade, and except in connection with a procession of a political, civic or charitable organization for which a police escort is provided by the chief of police, unless licensed thereto by the board of aldermen, as hereinafter set forth.

Emphasis on the word "meeting" was from Gewirtz. The ordinance seems to prohibit "very fundamental First Amendment rights," the Ward 6 alderman said.

Alderman At-Large Dennis Sullivan said, "I'm not sure my office hours would be legal in the city from what you just read," referring to his meetings with constituents held in different neighborhoods in the city.

Alderman At-Large John Connolly, said, "What we really have is not so much a constitutional issue but a lack of a policy."

"Nobody, I think, has a problem with people speaking or performing to some degree. It's how loud that performance—or those musicians—is," he said.

Connolly agreed the Board of Aldermen should address the issue. "If four musicians show up at 6 o'clock, who decides who plays?" he asked.

"With respect to music, everyone enjoys it, but not when you can't control the volume and not when you can't turn it down when it needs to be," he added.

As for permitting musicians, Gewirtz said, "As long as there's no permit that a musician should get, nobody should be telling musicians that they need to get a permit."

Gary September 17, 2012 at 10:27 AM
That's why I've always called cops "The Brotherhood of Evil", because that's who they are!!!
jennifer D. September 17, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Oh come on! really?! The police in Somerville have nothing more important to do than to tell someone to stop singing??? I like the musicians in the square. It add to to the charm of the area. I would rather the police focus on keeping the city safe. Getting rid of the street musician would be a crime.
Donal Waide September 17, 2012 at 01:30 PM
I know there's a noise ordinance in the city at certain times and this one would be easy enough for the cops to enforce. However, this permit issue needs to be visited sooner than later. In some places, a busker can be cited for loitering. I'd hate our precious tax dollars spent arresting a musician, when they could be, I don't know, catching a red light runner instead... And instead of spending thousands of dollars on "researching", why not look at the ordinances of other cities and adopt one for ourselves. Each alderman could cite one city...that's eleven examples..and take it from there.
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Roving Villen September 19, 2012 at 01:56 PM
I strongly agree with Donal on this But, on the other hand knowing many of the Somerville Police Officers personally....I know there isn't single officer that would harass a Street Performer just for the hell of it If they asked a Street Performer to move along it may very well be due to a complaint I have seen Patrol Officers in my square (Davis) listening to Street Performers What I'd like to see is an effort to eliminate the pan handlers from the square along with the scum that feel it's OK to leave their trash & related food debris around the Square What we really need here is more community involvement from residents and commercial property owners Come in to Davis Square in the early morning and see the mess that is left from the night before and see what commercial locations are out cleaning their store fronts Like Donal states, lets review other populated communities and see what they have on the books (maybe even review Quincy Market guidelines for performers) and get something on the books with a no fee permit
Scotty B September 24, 2012 at 12:44 AM
Hey I don't want to side with the cops here but didn't the esteemed Alderwoman say when she read the ordinance that you need a permit? Is it the cops fault they don't issue permits? I think not. Who writes these ordinances anyway? You guessed it, the aldermen do. How long has this wingnut been an alderwoman for ward 6? Ward 6 is probably the only ward that is consistently affected by this ordinance and she has "NEVER" read it? What the hell is she doing up there? We pay her to oversee the city and she doesn't have the wherewithall to "READ" our ordinances? Another wingnut Liberal. Do as I say not as I do. Do your job Alderwoman and stop blaming the cops for everything.
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