A revised proposal to place further restrictions on street musicians who ply their trade in downtown Chicago would violate constitutional free-speech protections, the American Civil Liberties Union says.

The group sent a letter to city officials late Tuesday that also contended the long-standing requirement that all street performers obtain city permits is unconstitutional. So too is the outright ban on all street performers in Millennium Park, states the letter written by Rebecca Glenberg, senior staff counsel for The Roger Baldwin Foundation of ACLU of Illinois.

“Instead of enacting new restrictions on street performers, the city should address the current unconstitutional restrictions,” Glenberg wrote.

Two downtown aldermen — Brendan Reilly, 42nd, and Brian Hopkins, 2nd — last month proposed new restrictions on street musicians and drummers on some downtown streets. Under the proposal, they would be allowed to perform only from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturdays in an area bounded by the Michigan Avenue, Dearborn Street, Oak Street and Van Buren Street.

That proposal, which Reilly said was worked out with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, followed an earlier, more restrictive version that stalled amid opposition from street musicians and the ACLU. That version would have virtually silenced performers along Chicago’s two prime downtown commercial corridors, but the mayor expressed his appreciation of street musicians and his allies put the brakes on the plan.

Still, the latest attempt at compromise doesn’t work for the ACLU.

“The new proposed ordinance is slightly less draconian, but it suffers the same basic constitutional infirmity as the prior version: Instead of regulating the volume of expression on public sidewalks, it regulates the content of that expression, singling out street performance for unique burdens that are not imposed on other expression that may be equally loud,” Glenberg wrote.

She suggested that the city could regulate the decibel level of all amplified sound on public sidewalks, “as long as the regulations are neutral and reasonable.”

She also referred to an earlier ACLU letter about the previous plan that said imposing a permit requirement on street performers amounted to “a prior restraint on speech” of the type that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. That earlier letter also stated that Millennium Park is “a traditional public forum” where the city cannot impose an outright ban on street performers, given Supreme Court precedent.

Reilly on Wednesday said he and Hopkins “worked closely with the (city) Law Department and constitutional lawyers to narrowly craft reasonable regulations that allow performers to play during the highest-value hours of the day, while also providing needed relief for office workers and residents.”

He also said he’s working with Emanuel’s office, the CTA and the Park District to find further locations like subway stations and parks where street musicians can perform. Reilly said those spots would be “high-revenue opportunities for street musicians to serve as viable alternatives to high-density, mixed-use blocks.” His latest plan hasn’t yet been reviewed by a city committee.

“We will spend the next month locking in these new locations and meeting with our colleagues to explain the changes in the compromise ordinance and the new revenue opportunities it will present to street musicians who choose to use amplifiers, bullhorns or percussion,” Reilly added. “All in all, we’re making excellent progress and are working toward passing the compromise measure in May in tandem with agreements for additional park and CTA locations.”


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