Wednesday | September 28, 2016
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Let the music play

Forbes magazine recently named Washington, D.C., America’s “Coolest City” for 2014, which is, well, cool. But in many respects, the District of Columbia remains a button-down kind of place — sometimes a little too button-down.

We could offer plenty of examples. Exhibit A might be Metro’s policy on musicians who might like to strum, fiddle, trill or even sing on its property.

It’s not just that the transit agency forbids them from playing inside Metro sbuway stations, or even within 15 feet of entrances — fare gates, stairs, escalators and so forth. Metro’s policy also forbids performers from accepting tips, even if they comply with the rules by playing their instruments beyond the 15-foot buffer zone outside stations.

That is so not cool.

A federal district court judge in Washington agreed. In a suit challenging Metro’s draconian rule, Judge Beryl A. Howell granted an injunction that allows buskers — street musicians — who comply with the transit agency’s other regulations to receive tips from passersby outside fare gates and escalators.

The suit was brought by Alex Young, a 27-year-old guitar player who was being hassled by transit police for doing no more than what he called brightening people’s days by entertaining them — and leaving his guitar case open as a receptacle for tips.

Thanks to the judge’s preliminary injunction, Young now can keep performing, and collecting tips, as long as he observes the 15-foot buffer in Metro’s aboveground “free areas.”

Metro says it intends to go to trial on the case, which would be foolish.

The agency has a legitimate interest in maintaining unobstructed access to station entrances. Although some transit systems elsewhere allow musicians more or less free access inside subway stations (Paris comes to mind), it’s reasonable for Metro to insist that they play only aboveground. After all, as anyone who tries to hear announcements from a platform knows well, the acoustics in Metro stations are bad enough without having to try to decipher the words through music.

Young’s lawyers argued that playing music for tips is a protected activity under the First Amendment and that Metro was violating his rights by shooing him away from the “free areas” outside station entrances.

Other U.S. transit systems would seem to agree. We surveyed other major ones — Chicago, Boston, San Francisco — and none has a policy forbidding tips for buskers. While most ban musicians from playing inside stations and some require musicians to obtain permits, none maintains a policy quite as strict as Metro’s 15-foot cordon sanitaire. ...

To its credit, Metro initiated a program a few years ago, known as MetroPerforms!, that allows musicians who win auditions to perform during the summer outside select stations, most of them in the District. But until now, even they haven’t been allowed to accept tips.

Mellow out, Metro. No one is hurt, and no transit operations are affected by musicians playing outside stations. The lousy ones won’t make enough in tips to keep going back, and the good ones will add a little diversion to the daily grind of a Washington commute. Which would be cool.

— Washington Post


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