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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."

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