Saugatuck to consider new bans on street performers despite previous ACLU lawsuit

Posted at 11:49 PM, May 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-09 23:49:45-04

SAUGATUCK, Mich. -- After the city recently settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two street performers last year, city leaders are now considering additional bans on street performing in the downtown area.

The two musicians  behind the suit wanted to play music for tips on city sidewalks. The city's policy however requires buskers to get a permit which only allows performing in parks, not on sidewalks. The lawsuit argued the city ordinance violated the musician's rights to free speech.

The city settled with the two musicians and agreed not to enforce the rule.

But according to the Saugatuck City Council agenda for May 11, leaders are planning to discuss an amendment to the city's existing ordinance on street performing that would prohibit any performance on city sidewalks in the downtown area between the months of May and September. The language of the amendment cites the increased pedestrian traffic from tourists during those months as the main reason for a need to regulate street performances.

Chris Waechter, one of the plaintiffs in the 2014 lawsuit, played for a small crowd of spectators in downtown Saugatuck this past Saturday afternoon. He told FOX 17 he's been playing his violin for 10 years and still doesn't understand why the city would try to limit such performances.

“I have a right, my First Amendment right, and I think that right should be the same throughout any city," he said. "Being regulated, makes it feel like you don’t want to play."

Marc Allen, a fellow attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, told FOX 17 the new restrictions being discussed by the city are unconstitutional and are again in violation of the First Amendment.

“This is such a vibrant, art-friendly community in the first place," Allen said. "As (FOX 17) has seen from just a few minutes filming Chris, people generally appreciate him and everyone walking by has universally said they’re happy he’s out playing.

If anything, he’s improving the ambiance downtown.”

Kirk Harrier, city manager for Saugatuck, declined an on-camera interview request Saturday. He instead provided FOX 17 with a statement, adding he wanted to wait until city council members had a chance to discuss the proposed amendment during Monday's upcoming meeting.

“The City of Saugatuck is committed to protecting the rights of all of its citizens and all who come to our city," he said in the statement. "

The city is also committed to protecting the health, safety and welfare of its citizens and visitors. This is precisely why the city is working diligently to develop an ordinance that will accommodate both of these very significant concerns.”

Monday's city council meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at Sagautuck City Hall, 102 Butler Street.