More Thoughts on Free Speech, Public Places and Pirates

Adam soap boxYesterday I wrote about our experience at Buskerfest on Saturday night. We were only there an hour or so, just long enough to catch the flavor of the event which is in its fourth year. This was our first time attending, and we were mainly there to support our friend Adam, who performs original poetry under the stage name “Adosh.”

Adam has since shared with me the guidelines from the committee, which were sent to him three days prior to the event.

Here’s the salient excerpt (emphasis mine):

There really aren’t strict rules for buskers at our event but we do hope you will show courtesy to your fellow performers.  Here are a few simple guidelines:

 Your performance MUST be appropriate for all ages – no vulgarity or political propaganda.

• There is no permit or fee required as part of this event.

• Please give room to stages and other performers-buskers should spread out throughout the festival.  If you are a musician, for example, don’t perform next to another musician, find another spot where you don’t compete for sound. Give yourself room for an audience to gather.

• If you use amplification, keep it low so you don’t interfere with other performers or nearby activity and vendors.

• Stay at least 10 feet away from doorways of businesses that are open.

• Buskers under 16 should have an adult present.

• You may put out a tip jar.

• You may give out business cards or promotional flyers to those who ask, but we discourage signage or mass distribution of paper materials to reduce litter. No political or religious materials may be distributed or presented.

GEOFFREY RUSHI have to wonder whether this set of “guidelines” (why does that word make me think of pirates?) was screened by the legal department.  It does seem to be sending some mixed messages to the performers –first of all by claiming to have no “strict rules” and then listing (some of ) the so-called guidelines in the form of “thou shalt nots.”

I find it curious that “political propaganda” is implied to be unfit for “all ages” and is lumped together with vulgarity.  Since propaganda can simply mean “the particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement,”  I believe there were other groups present (notably, a social activist organization) who were presenting propaganda–no pejorative meaning intended.

And then there’s that last point, which starts out sounding like a plea to avoid generating trash by leaflet-ing your audience.  We’ve all been at events where every passerby gets a flyer, and 90% end up on the ground.  Fair enough.

But that same bullet point ends up with a prohibition against displaying or presenting “political or religious materials.” Does that mean that one could neither hand out nor display copies of the Constitution? Couldn’t hold a Bible? Wear a cross?  Without defining “presenting” or “materials,” doesn’t that seem rather a cryptic line to toss in at the end…did they hope no one would notice?

toy story

Woody mumbles: (Andy’s birthday party has been moved to today)

At the time, Adam was asked–courteously, he assured me–to take off his sign because One Summit Square, where most of the event took place, was “private property.”  Now any Free Speech advocate worth his salt knows full well that that argument doesn’t hold legal water.

As far back as the mid 1940s, when the courts examined freedom-of-speech claims on so-called private property (e.g., shopping malls), the Supreme Court held that

“the more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general, the more do his rights become circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who use it.” In striking a balance, the Court concluded that the free-speech rights of the individual were paramount over the property rights asserted by the company.

–from Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946)

I would contend that the bank which now owns One Summit Square, in allowing a free and public event which would draw dozens or hundreds of performers and thousands of spectators to its grounds, as well to as the surrounding public sidewalks and streets, had effectively made that space public property, for the duration of the festival.

street preacher

Street preacher in Covent Garden, 2006

And in creating an event to which street performers were invited en masse, did the organizers purposely ignored the rich history of street orators and preachers, and even of religious musicians and actors dating back to the Middle Ages and earlier?  Several revivals in England (under John Wesley and George Whitefield, among others) would not have happened without open-air preaching.  Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner has attracted a rich diversity of political and religious speakers every Sunday since 1872.

If Buskerfest truly intended to represent a cross-section of our city at large, and offer something for everyone, but at the same time intended to prohibit religious performances–in the “City of Churches” no less…then they should at least have the honesty and guts to say so unequivocally.  They should also be able to back up their prohibition with cogent reasons which will hold up to legal scrutiny.

Otherwise, the Buskerfest committee are really no better than pirates.


10 responses to “More Thoughts on Free Speech, Public Places and Pirates

  1. livinrightinpgh

    Yet again, ANOTHER example of selective interpretation.

    If the organizers have a SPECIFIC requirement that “No political or religious materials may be distributed or presented.”, FoodNotBombs would NOT be permitted to be there. And, before ANYONE tries the “They’re about food for children” line, please check out what they post on their site. If you don’t believe that they’re “political”, you may wish to buy a new dictionary.

    And, while I may not agree with FNB’s POLITICAL viewpoints, I completely support their RIGHT to maintain their views, and have NO problem with them being at the event if ALL other viewpoints are also permitted. HOWEVER, if your friend was disqualified under the “no political or religious” clause of their guidelines, then FNB should NOT have been there either.

  2. Reblogged this on Political Musings-At the Sunset of My Life and commented:
    Political Correctness is destroying our country. This country was based on Freedom and especially of Speech. Dr. Carson hits this political correctness problem squarely on the head!

  3. Good article. Wow, ‘coming to an event near you’, I guess. They sure should have had the guts to do and say that ….out front. In effect, “we have no rules but we did gut the 1st amendment– for your convenience of course.” (You don’t have to thank us.)

  4. tannngl (@tannngl)

    Your post strikes a real chord for me. I have done street witnessing in several campaigns. We have taken our ‘Jews for Jesus’ tracts to the streets of Pittsburgh: Oakland in front of Pitt, Squirrel Hill and in public parks that during festivals. There’s always someone who is in charge of the festival who tells us to leave. We speak to their charge person about the First Amendment on public property and they usually back down.
    We have our own rules. When someone takes a tract and throws it on the ground, we pick it up and place it in the trash receptical. We don’t pester anyone who doesn’t want to speak to us. We offer our tracts and if someone wants to talk we take time with them and tell them about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our opening is: “Who do you believe Jesus is?”
    When I’ve stepped out in this way, the Holy Spirit has stepped in front of me. He clears the way and gives me words and grace. It’s an amazing experience! Just like in The Acts! But it is not easy.
    Thanks for your post. And God bless those who witness for Him in your Buskerfest!

    • godsbooklover

      Wow, Tannngl! My husband and I worked with JFJ in Los Angeles, and still have numerous friends in the ministry. Are you a Co-Laborer? We were with the So. Cal. Liberated Wailing Wall for over a year. One of my favorite missions organizations. And yes, I learned a LOT about witnessing and 1st Amendment rights from them. Thanks for sharing your story!

  5. It’s free speech for me, but not for thee. That’s how it works on the left.

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