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Olympia: Freedom of Busk in Jeopardy

So there I was driving down 4th street after wrapping up a photo shoot and interview with the folks down at Rainy Day Records. As I passed City Hall I couldn’t help but notice the dozens of people gathered outside City Hall with drums, guitars, violins and other instruments. Within the crowd I could make out a couple of the group’s signs, one read, “BUSKING IS MUSIC TO MY EARS” – needless to say, I had to stop and see what was going on. After paying my parking fee I walked up to a musician and, in the fashion I’ve become accustomed to in our fair city, I pleasantly asked, “What’s this about, dude?” A young woman stepped forward and replied, “We’re here to protest the fact that the City of Olympia has made it illegal in some areas of downtown to busk.”

What’s busking you ask? Busking is defined by the Olympia Municipal Code 5.88 as “acting, singing, playing musical instruments, reciting poetry, pantomime, mime, perform magic tricks, or dance for the purpose of or while immediately receiving contributions, alms, charity, or gifts or times of value for oneself of another person“. And there goes my break-dancing career.

The penalty for busking in Olympia – a $1,000 fine and/or imprisonment not to exceed 90 days. Subsequent violations result in a $5,000 fine and/or imprisonment, not to exceed 365 days. To avoid the fine, businesses desiring to establish busking zones near their business can apply for a permit through the Director of Olympia Parks, Arts, and Recreation Department. Organizers of yesterday’s protest are certain Olympia’s new busking limitations violate first amendment rights, citing the Seattle City Center busking case Berger v. City of Seattle. In the case, Mike Berger, also known as Magic Mike, a balloon artist and frequent Seattle Center performer, filed lawsuit challenging the Center’s busking limitation policy as a violation of his constitutional rights. The District court granted a summary judgement to Berger and yesterday’s protestors hope to use the Berger ruling to thwart Olympia’s busking limitations rule.

So no longer can you expect to see street musicians, mimes, clowns, fire-eaters, or anything of the sort in Olympia unless you happen to find yourself in one of the licensed busking zones on the corners of Columbia and Legion, Capital and Legion, Columbia and State, or 4th and Franklin. What does this mean to you? Not sure, I guess it depends whether or not you enjoy listening to live music or other performances on the street, or if you think of such activity as a nuisance. As for the lover of music and art that I am, I care not where I find either. But it appears that the random creativity we are familiar with on the streets of Olympia will be confined to these new “pockets of creativity“. Perhaps we can find some way to turn these corners into works of art themselves. Whatever the case, music and Olympia are longtime BFFs and I’ve got a feeling its going to stay that way for a long time. Thanks for supporting the LIO staff and our freedom of speech; leave a reply, I’d like to know what you think about busking in Olympia.



About the Author

Robert HumesRobert is the music and style writer for Living In Olympia. Follow Robert on Twitter: @BobbyHumesView all posts by Robert Humes →

  1. Downtown SupporterDowntown Supporter09-08-2011

    There is some confusion about busking in downtown and that is the heart of the issue. There are several free zones for busking that are permitted. The rest of downtown there is busking allowed if there is permission from the business to have someone in front of their place of business. Education is necessary for buskers, businesses and enforcement folks to understand the ordinance as it is already written.

  2. Kari KellsKari Kells09-08-2011

    Hmmmm. I would agree with these protesters *if* that’s what the proposed law was really about. However, I just looked it up and it’s not about busking in general. It’s about “aggressively panhandling” and “obstructing pedestrian or vehicular traffic”… Reading legal stuff isn’t easy for me, but I always make sure I understand the true issue before I protest something or sign a petition. This issue is one that I could’ve easily misunderstood had I not taken the time to go beyond this posting so I could read the law in question. I’d encourage anyone interested in this to do the same.

  3. Brian VanderVeenBrian VanderVeen09-11-2011

    Kari, this isn’t about proposed “aggressive panhandling” regulations; it’s about the existing 2007 ordinances that do explicitly and specifically restrict busking. You can read the text of the relevant part of the Oly municipal code here:

  4. Robert HumesRobert Humes09-14-2011

    Thanks for the discussion. I’m glad we live in a community that seeks their own facts. That’s what Living in Olympia is all about. The codes and relevant policy sited in the article can be found on the City of Olympia’s website.

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