OCEAN CITY — As Ocean City continues to tip-toe the line between street performer regulations and First Amendment rights, a line clearly defined by the courts on at least two occasions, an impassioned plea for the rights of others trying to enjoy the Boardwalk came from an unlikely source this week.
During the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting, Worcester County Commissioner and former Ocean City Councilman Joe Mitrecic implored the current Mayor and Council to continue to find a way to rein in some of the busker activity on the Boardwalk after a personal experience last weekend. Mitrecic, who made it clear he was speaking as a citizen and not as the Worcester County Commissioner who represents Ocean City in Snow Hill, said he went to the Boardwalk on a recent Sunday to enjoy the Sandfest sculptures and came away with increased disdain for at least some of the street performers.
Mitrecic said he and his wife walked along and looked at the sand sculptures during the daylight hours, then went to have dinner at a Boardwalk restaurant with a plan to return afterwards to view the sculptures illuminated at night. However, Mitrecic said the couple’s dining experience was marred by the loud music he characterized as noise from an electric violin plugged into an amplifier nearby.
“Up until the time we sat down to eat, it was a great night,” he said. “I’ve sat where you all sit and I know what you’re up against it, but something has to be done with the street performers.”
Mitrecic said the performance spoiled what was otherwise a delightful evening on the Boardwalk. He wondered how many others had similar experiences that went unreported. It’s no secret many of the store owners and business owners on the Boardwalk have complained about some of the street performers, but rarely has such a candid story been told at least publicly by a private citizen.
“The gentleman played — I can’t even say he played — he made noises with an electric violin plugged into an amplifier, and I could not even hear the music in the restaurant,” he said. “At some point in time, that has to be a violation of my rights. My rights were violated. I could not enjoy the dinner with my wife that I paid for. At some point in time, whose rights matter more than others.”
The courts have been clear about the First Amendment rights of the street performers. Twice, Ocean City’s ordinances on street performers have been challenged in U.S. District Court and twice the town has been directed not to infringe on the First Amendment rights of buskers. Just last month the town was challenge again by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) when a Boardwalk performer was issued a warning on the 30-foot noise rule for buskers and the town agreed not to enforce the rule in the future and vowed to remove it from the ordinance.
However, not until Tuesday, at least in a public forum, had a private citizen voiced concern about his own rights to enjoy the Boardwalk being infringed upon by street performers. Certainly, art and music are subjective and the enjoyment of either is in the eyes and ears of the beholder, but Mitrecic raised an interesting question about the rights of others on the Boardwalk.
“Not until I was a block-and-a-half away could I not hear him,” he said. “This is a block-and-a-half. If I sat in my yard and played a guitar on my own property, I don’t think I could get away with this.”
As a former councilman, Mitrecic said he understood the recent history in the courts and the complexities of the constitutional issues, but questioned if the will of the people could overcome them.
“I understand you’re up against it,” he said. “I don’t know if there could be a petition from the people of Ocean City or if the voters could bring it to referendum. I don’t know the answer but I certainly know that you all have been looking everywhere for it, but at this point in time, this gentleman is infringing on the rights of the people that are trying to enjoy the Boardwalk and that’s not fair.”
Mitrecic attempted to make the distinction between true artists and those with less talent taking advantage of a captive audience on the Boardwalk.
“People in Ocean City have the right to walk down the Boardwalk and not be assaulted by Pikachu or Bugs Bunny or whoever else wants to stand up there,” he said. “The gentleman who does the spray paint, he belongs in a store and not on the Boardwalk, but at least he is an artist. At least he does something that’s a performance. The magician, the squeaky guy on the bike — at least they know what they’re doing and provide some entertainment on the Boardwalk.”
Ocean City officials spent much of last offseason tweaking the street performer ordinance again and the issue will likely be raised again when the dust settles on the current season. In the meantime, Mitrecic urged the council to continue to explore ways to improve the situation.
“Anything we can do in the future to do away with this type of thing so other peoples’ rights aren’t violated would be beneficial to the town of Ocean City,” he said.