Resort, Street Performer Waiting On Judge’s Ruling

OCEAN CITY — A federal judge this week heard arguments on a motion for a preliminary injunction in the civil suit filed earlier this summer against the town of Ocean City by a street performer, but reserved ruling as the summer continues to tick down.

In June, the Ocean City Mayor and Council unanimously passed an emergency order banning street performers from practicing or exercising their art at the end of North Division Street, citing public safety concerns about the possible impact at one of the major access points to the Boardwalk and beach for emergency services.

One week later, artist Mark Chase filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming the town’s actions against him specifically and street performers in general were in violation of his rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Maryland Constitution Declaration of Rights.

In the suit, Chase is seeking both a preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting the town from enforcing the new code changes regarding street performers. A hearing was held on the preliminary injunction component of the case on Tuesday, although Judge Ellen L. Hollander did not immediately rule on the motion.

With the summer ticking away, an expedient ruling by the judge was needed to salvage what was left of the season for Chase, but it appears likely a ruling might not be forthcoming for days or even weeks.

Chase is represented by a participating attorney for the Rutherford Institute, an organization dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and human rights. Following Tuesday’s hearing on the preliminary injunction, Rutherford Institute spokesperson Nisha Whitehead said the judge did not make an immediate ruling, but that the organization was confident Chase’s case would prevail in the long run.

“The hearing on our preliminary injunction motion was heard yesterday, however, the judge did not rule on the motion and the case has not been resolved otherwise,” she said. “Based upon yesterday’s proceedings, we anticipate a favorable outcome, hopefully within the next 20 days.”

From the beginning of the debate, Ocean City officials have asserted the intent of the emergency ordinance regarding the acceptable locations for street performers and artists was rooted in public safety, and not an attempt to impede freedom of speech or expression. The town’s response to the civil suit attempts to make that clear from the get-go.

“Due to the heavy increase in population, high pedestrian traffic and other activity on the town’s streets and Boardwalk, Ocean City has enacted several ordinances to ensure public safety as its primary goal and to otherwise enhance the family atmosphere of the town,” the town’s response to the suit reads.

Chase alleges in his complaint he had been continually targeted by the town because he has been the most outspoken opponent of the ordinance. In its response to the suit, the town continues to assert the ordinance was adopted in the interest of public safety and was not rooted in any retaliation against the street performer.

“The plaintiff and other solicitors are required to abide by the reasonable safety measures enacted by the Mayor and Council, which permit such solicitation so long as ingress and egress to public walks and emergency exit ramps are not restricted,” the response reads.

In other words, town officials contend North Division Street was made off limits for street performers because of its importance as an access point for emergency vehicles to the beach and Boardwalk.