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Saugatuck: lawsuit over busking attempt to embarrass the city

Dec 19, 2014

A musician who was jailed last summer for refusing to stop playing his guitar on a sidewalk is suing the city of Saugatuck in federal court.

The city says the sidewalks are too packed in the summer to allow unrestricted entertainment. Musicians can play in city parks without permits.

Michael Steinberg is Legal Director of the ACLU of Michigan, which is representing the musician.

“Individuals in this country should not have to ask permission from their government to express themselves in traditional public forums like sidewalks,” Steinberg said. “The fact that street musicians accept tips does not undermine their fundamental right to express themselves in public.”

Steinberg says it seems reasonable to restrict the hours, noise level and number of people in a location. He says the city’s restrictions are too broad and violate the musician’s freedom of expression.

Gabe Novak was arrested in June for playing his guitar on the sidewalk without a permit. The 19-year-old is a music student at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Saugatuck city manager Kirk Harrier says they got a complaint about Novak, who was told he needed a permit. But Novak came back the next weekend.

“And when the cop came back (Novak) told the cop ‘you know I’ve done some research and I have a First Amendment right to be here,” Steinberg said. He says Novak printed off legal cases which he showed the officers.

“He thought that he had a right to be there and he would be able to explain to the officer what the law was, but he was given a rude lesson in abusive power,” Steinberg said.

Harrier says permits are needed because Saugatuck’s small sidewalks are packed with summer tourists and entertainers could be a safety hazard. He says the permits also allow business owners to have a say over where and when musicians perform.

“On the surface everyone looks and asks, ‘Hey what’s the problem? You know it’s just some young, clean-cut lad out there playing a guitar. What’s he really  hurting?' Well probably nothing except for the crowd accumulates so it prevents people from walking on the sidewalk. But what happens when you get 10 or  15 people who want to play on the sidewalk?”

Harriers says the officer gave Novak “multiple opportunities to not be arrested” by moving to a nearby park. No permits are required to play at parks.

Harrier also says Novak resisted arrest by pulling away from the officer when he was being arrested.

Novak’s parents were “obviously upset” and wanted the prosecutor’s office to drop the charges, Harrier said. Novak pled to lesser charges of disturbing the peace.

Harrier calls the lawsuit frivolous.

“Not in terms that it’s regarding a First Amendment right, but I feel that the family, they’re doing this as retaliation to try to embarrass the city,” Harrier said.

He says the ACLU should’ve tried to work with the city before filing the complaint. Steinberg says the family tried to convince the city to change the ordinance and says the city hasn’t done anything to do that.

“We'd love to work through problems and come up with good solutions that benefit the public rather than going through a federal lawsuit costing taxpayers a whole bunch of money,” Harrier said.