WASHINGTON, DC — The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of a young street musician who was threatened with arrest and prosecution for "busking" near train stations. Busking is the time-honored practice of performing in public places for tips. In filing suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Rutherford Institute attorneys have asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to affirm that the above-ground, "free" areas of WMATA transit stations where guitarist Alex Young performs are traditional public forums where members of the public are entitled to engage in speech and expression under the First Amendment.
"We would do well not to underestimate the power of music, literature, film and art to speak truth to power. Historically, these have been the instruments of societal change and revolution. Understanding this, America's founders ensured that expressive activities, no matter what the medium—whether it's spoken, written, sung, painted or played—are clearly protected by the First Amendment," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. "In a neo-feudal age in which the government spies on its citizens, monitors their activities, treats them like suspects, and denies them fundamental rights to life, liberty and property, it's not surprising that the government would clamp down on free speech activities, even of the musical variety.
If we are to have any hope of salvaging our freedoms, it is more critical than ever that we stand up for the rights of street musicians, writers, graffiti artists, comedians, filmmakers, painters and the like. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas recognized, 'Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.'"
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, "free" areas of WMATA transit stations. According to regulations promulgated by WMATA's governing authority, persons are allowed to engage in "free speech activities" 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 "panhandling" and threatened to arrest him if he did not move elsewhere. 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 "commercial activity" that is prohibited by WMATA regulations.