Ocean City Today

Accepting restrictions, protecting free speech

Oct 12, 2017



printed 10/13/2017


Democracy’s greatest danger is that it will eat itself, as freedoms pushed to their edges generally result in the willingness of the public to accept — and even rejoice in — more government control.

This is why Ocean City government’s proposition to turn over the Boardwalk to a private entity to avoid First Amendment issues with street performers is a bigger deal than many people might think.

It reflects, for instance, some aspects of New York City’s makeover of Times Square, replete with “activity zones,” where performers and artists who seek tips have been corralled.

That city’s decision to exercise more control over the midtown landmark resulted from performers and others taking their First Amendment rights too far in pursuit of their own commercial interests.

That’s where New York drew the line and created its activity zones. Meanwhile, anyone can play music, give a speech or dance the night away in the general plaza area as long as they’re not looking for or accepting tips.

That’s the difference between the right to freedom of expression and the privilege of exercising artistic expression for commercial purposes.

Ocean City’s Boardwalk performers don’t like the rules as they are now constituted, as is evidenced by the federal lawsuit challenging them in U.S. Circuit Court in Baltimore, and the Oct. 2 motion calling for their immediate repeal.

No one can predict with any certainty how the court will respond to the buskers’ request for a summary judgment, or how it will rule if the case instead goes to a full hearing.

What can be said, however, is that an honest advocate of freedom of expression would accept the city’s current restrictions on performance for money, before jeopardizing true free speech by pushing the envelope until privatizing the Boardwalk is the only answer.

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