February 16, 2013

Our View: Portland should not register street artists

A proposed ordinance exposes the city to legal action while sending the wrong message.

Apparently Portland City Hall workers don't have enough to do, so a committee of city councilors wants to add another job: art critic.

click image to enlarge

Members of the Creative Community Coalition, from left, Abbeth Russell, William Hessian, Marrion Ladd and Asher Platts work on their presentation Monday at Russell’s and Hessian’s home in Portland. The city said Tuesday it is pressing forward with a plan to create a registration system for street art vendors, likely setting up a legal showdown with free-speech advocates.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

A majority of members of the City Council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee this week proposed a system of regulating street artists, making them go to City Hall for a permit before they set up their tables on the sidewalk.

The new ordinance would attempt to fix a perceived problem of too many vendors on the street competing with brick-and-mortar businesses. It would require artists to register at City Hall and display a permit when they sell their goods.

If the ordinance ends up on the books, city officials would have to determine whether what the vendors are selling is really art, or just merchandise. That is not only a tough call aesthetically, it's on shaky ground legally, and Portland could well find itself in court defending its action on First Amendment grounds.

The committee members may have thought they were taking a moderate step -- they rejected some of the most extreme proposed restrictions and put off action on others, waiting for more information from staff.

But even if they go no further than the registration plan, the city would be coming very close to censorship, if not crossing the line completely. It would also tell the world that Portland is not a place that values free expression.

Since the committee is supposed to focus on public health and safety, that should be its focus. The government should take an interest in where vendors set up but not in the content of their speech.

The street art restrictions are supported by some Portland businesses, which feel they are subject to unfair competition, but evening that playing field is not really the city's role, either.

If a consumer would rather buy an item from a street vendor than walk into a shop, that is the consumer's decision. It's not up to the city to ban the competition, it's up to the shop owner to try to win the competition.

Ultimately, the street artists are probably creating more business for the retailers than what they take away.

Visitors to places like Portland like to see street musicians, food carts and artists when they walk around. They also like to shop in stores and are more likely to stroll by one on a lively street than a dead one.

The retailers and the City Council should back off. If Portland needs to set limits on vendors to keep the sidewalks passable, the council should do that. But regulating what people sell and who they compete with doesn't sound like a job city officials need to take on.


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