By Jonathan Friedman
October 14, 2009 -- Performance artists will soon no longer need a permit to do their work on most Santa Monica sidewalks. But permits will remain a requirement for performers on the Third Street Promenade, the pier and the transit mall.
The City Council on Tuesday voted 6 to 0 to ask City staff to tweak Santa Monica’s ordinance regarding street performers. The vote came as a response to a June ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that Seattle’s permit requirement for street performers violated the First Amendment.
The council members said the Seattle situation differed from the one in Santa Monica because the court case involved an 80-acre open area, while Santa Monica’s major street performance areas are narrow and congested.
“Compared to Seattle, we have demonstrated public safety concerns that do justify our permits as a way to protect both the free speech aspects of performance and the performers and the public in terms of public safety,” Council member Kevin Mckeown said.
However, the council members agreed the same issues did not exist on the city’s sidewalks. This was their reason for ordering the change to the permitting requirement in those areas.
“We don’t have those kinds of crowds,” Mayor Ken Genser said. “And we don’t have, frankly, the performers.”
The street performance ordinance was first established in 1989 to address safety concerns on the Promenade. Four years later, the requirement for a permit was added to the law. The regulation was expanded to cover the pier and city sidewalks in 1997. And in 1999, the transit mall was added to the mix.
Numerous adjustments have been made to the street performance ordinance through the years to conform with new case law and in response to public and street performer demand. Changes have included a ban on dangerous objects in 1991 and the establishment of a lottery system for performers in 2003.
Several street performers spoke at the City Council meeting. Nearly all said they favored the current permitting system for the Promenade, pier and transit mall.
“It is required to maintain some sort of sanity in the city,” said Walt Davis, who has been performing since 1986.
Vincent Garofalo, who sells political bumper stickers on the Promenade, was one of the few voices in opposition to the permit system.
“It would only take one performer to challenge that,” Garofalo said. “And I think a judge would maybe issue a restraining order or something to stop the permit system. So I think it’s time to move forward without the permits.”
Representatives from the Bayside District Corp. and the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Commission also spoke in favor of the current permitting policy.
“To not have permits there would be chaos,” said Steven Bradford, who manages the Third Street Promenade for the Bayside District.
Bayside District Board President Bill Tucker added, “We are not a suburb of Seattle and one size does not fit all.”