It’s difficult to accept, but Ocean City has little to no recourse when it comes to the street performers. That much we know from the recent court ruling that protects them due to the First Amendment.
Over the course of this summer, numerous complaints have been heard regarding the street performers. The only fairly new complaint has been the major surge in costumed characters present every evening. There are more of these this summer than ever before. The idea is the characters pose for a photo with little ones and then receive a tip of some sort. Apparently, it’s a decent gig with hardworking types netting about $2,000 a week.
Other street performer concerns are more familiar and involve gas generators being used to power amplification for the musicians; street performers blocking various store entrances on the Boardwalk; noise laws being violated; an air of entitlement among the buskers; and health worries with the new henna tattoo operations.
With the costumed Boardwalk “performers,” the concern is two-fold. One is the worry that the wrong type of individual, such as a registered sex offender, is looking to exploit children in a perverse way.
At this week’s Mayor and Council meeting, that topic was broached with the feeling expressed the city’s police department should be able to seek identification from a costumed character without violating the person’s First Amendment rights. While that may seem reasonable to protect the town’s visitors and residents and specifically the most vulnerable among us, City Solicitor Guy Ayres said this week it may not be productive or legal, according to a recent ruling against the city on street performers.
“There is nothing to say that a convicted child molester can’t wear a costume and can’t be on the Boardwalk. What purpose does it serve? What we tried to explain is the mayor actually testified on this very issue in court. It came up. Basically the judge has told Ocean City, ‘look I feel your pain, I know your pain but I’m not striking down the First Amendment for you,’” Ayres said. “Quite frankly, I know these merchants up there are upset about it and I know they are beating the council up about it, but if they are at war on the street performers, the court is not going to make the Constitution the first casualty of the war.”
The second concern with the latest spike in street performers is the fact J-1 Visa holders are reportedly collecting unreported income by dressing up in these costumes and accepting tips. The idea is these foreign workers are employed to some degree by a local individual who provides them with the costume and a ride to the Boardwalk and gets a cut of the night’s take.
The State Department has told the city that needs to stop because it’s in direct violation to the Visas that allow foreign student workers to be here in the first place. The J-1 student workers can collect tips, but it must be in a supervised setting, like a restaurant, according to the Visa specifics.
While that violation is clear, what’s murky is what authorities can do about it. That was reportedly the subject of a meeting between Ocean City police representatives and the city solicitor this week.
The issue of the street performers on the Boardwalk has always been a divisive one in Ocean City. Some appreciate their talents and believe they add a certain charm to the boards, while others view them as a rude nuisance that cheapens the experience. We side with the latter.
Whatever the city decides to do, the suggested action cannot land them in court again. A significant amount of money has already been spent fighting street performers in court and a solid ruling is in place. The First Amendment sides with the street performers. While the city is wise to pursue all angles to address the concerns being expressed, the suggested course of action needs to be considered extensively and with the understanding further court action from the street performers and the ACLU is not out of the question if measures go too far.