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D.C. Metro update: Judge allows subway musicians to receive tips

Warren RicheyThe Christian Science Monitor

A federal judge has ordered the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to start allowing musicians to play their instruments and accept donations outside Washington, D.C., subway stations.

US District Judge Beryl Howell issued the preliminary injunction after a hearing on Thursday to examine guitarist Alex Young’s complaint that Metro police officers had threatened to arrest him because he was accepting donations tossed into his open guitar case.

Under WMATA regulations, musicians are allowed to play outside Metro stations, but they must remain more than 15 feet from any escalator, stairwell, fare gate, or fare card machine.

They are also barred from collecting donations.

Mr. Young was twice threatened with arrest at Metro stations in suburban Virginia because he conducted his performances with an open guitar case.

In his complaint, Young said he does not ask for donations but that riders simply drop money into his guitar case in appreciation for his performances.

According to Metro police, the open guitar case transforms Young’s activities into forbidden commercial activity.

In his lawsuit, Young says the WMATA regulations violate his First Amendment right to free speech, and that his open guitar case makes the political statement that Americans should support the arts, including starving musicians.

“An open guitar case or tip jar is a silent reminder that artists need to make a living and, more broadly, that survival of the arts depends on society’s willingness to support artists financially,” Young’s lawyer, Jeffrey Light, wrote in his brief.

Judge Howell said her injunction blocking enforcement of the WMATA’s no busking policy would take place immediately and would remain in effect pending final resolution of the case.

Young’s lawsuit is being underwritten by the non-profit civil liberties group, The Rutherford Institute.

Institute President John Whitehead praised the judge’s action. “This victory serves notice to the police state that free speech and the rule of law still count for something in America,” he said.

The case is Young v. Sarles (14cv1203).