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The streets of Boston can again be filled with the sound of saxophone riffs, thudding bucket drums and political satires. In a recent court ruling, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner overturned century-old ordinances prohibiting artists and musicians from performing in public spaces and asking for donations without a license, calling them unconstitutional. Community Arts Advocates Inc. v. City of Boston, No. 04-CV-11618 (D. Mass. 2004). “Getting old laws off the books is a major step,” said Stephen Baird, executive director of the Community Arts Advocates (CAA), the plaintiffs in the case. “I’ve been trying to perform in Boston since 1971, with either high levels of harassment or low levels of arrest.” Baird plays the hammered dulcimer and the mandolin, and also performs political satire and plays, often with puppets. He created the Boston-based CAA, a nonprofit with around 30 members, three years ago to advocate for street artists. He said that on numerous occasions the police have arrested him and members of his organization, or asked them to cease a performance. The restrictions on street performing and solicitations, a municipal ordinance and Boston Police Rule 75, were established in 1878. They included outdated provisions such as not allowing bell ringing in public, nor allowing a female licensed musician to perform in public without a licensed male musician present. The city granted performing licenses to some street performers, but Baird said that despite having one, he was still prohibited from performing frequently. The ordinances placed limits on where and when a licensed musician could perform, and who could obtain a license. Enter the lawyers While seeking legal help to fight against the city ordinances, attorneys at Boston-based Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault’s patent and intellectual property practice group caught wind of Baird’s struggles, and agreed to take on the case pro bono. “The community spirit and environment that the artisans provide is immeasurable,” said John Cotter, a partner at the firm who handled the case. “It’s an interesting case and a worthy cause.” Cotter, along with partners Deborah Peckham and Thomas Turano and associates Karen Schouten and Jason Duva, argued that it was the artists’ constitutional right, protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments, to perform and solicit peacefully in the public areas of the city. A hearing is scheduled for February to discuss the creation of a new ordinance. “The judge said to us, ‘You’ve won,’ but we’re still waiting to get something that works; we still need regulations,” Cotter said. Thomas Donohue, the assistant corporation counsel for the city of Boston who defended the case, declined to comment. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently involved in similar challenges to protect the rights of street performers in Baltimore. In Miami Beach, Fla.—after the ACLU threatened to sue—the city passed an amendment allowing street performers to solicit money in several public locations. Similar cases have been filed in California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, New York and Virginia over the past two decades.

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