A federal judge on Monday preserved a Venice Beach boardwalk tradition, issuing an order protecting street performers and vendors who said they had been unfairly ticketed by police for selling everything from CDs to politically inspired T-shirts.
The preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters came in response to a 1st Amendment lawsuit filed by 27 boardwalk entertainers. The musicians, fortunetellers and political activists complained that police were tromping on their freedom of speech by ticketing them for accepting money from passersby and citing them for the supposed illegal sale of T-shirts and examples of their works.
"This is important to all of us, from the performers and the people who sell cause-minded T-shirts to the guys who accept tips for the sandcastles they make," said veteran troubadour Harry Perry, who said he had been ticketed for selling CDs and cassettes of his music.
"It just came to the point where [police were] telling people who were doing art that if they collected money they were going to jail. It just forced our hand. We felt all along that we had the right to do our art," Perry said.
Waters' order will remain in effect until the performers' lawsuit filed against the city is resolved at trial.
In recent years merchants have complained to city officials that unlicensed commercial street vending on the boardwalk has deprived their shops of business. Musicians such as Perry say their products are protected by the 1st Amendment and are thus exempt from a Los Angeles city ordinance that prohibits selling or solicitation on city beaches. The law does allow religious, charitable, philosophical and political associations and newspaper vendors to sell merchandise at beaches.
Police in April began issuing warnings and citations to groups and individuals operating without proof of nonprofit status, inciting performers such as Perry.
Assistant City Atty. Byron Boeckman said the city is deciding whether to appeal Waters' order. "We are deciding whether we can live with the court order. We believe [the municipal code] is constitutional. The act of selling a piece of art is not a 1st Amendment-protected activity. It's commercial, which has much lesser protection."
Sgt. Frank Montelongo of the LAPD's Pacific Division, who has coordinated the issuing of the citations, declined to comment on the decision.
James Fosbinder, a Venice Beach attorney who represents the artists ticketed or allegedly harassed by police since April, said the crackdown was designed to reduce the number of people who visit the boardwalk, which has seen an increase in violent clashes involving gang members and others.
"Every spring the LAPD knows there will be a lot of people here and they do what they can to get rid of them," he said. "Their strategy is to get rid of the entertainers and then people will stop coming."
Last month the merchants who own stores on the commercial side of the boardwalk were involved in a protest--they left their stores to ply wares on the beach side of the boardwalk.
"We always welcomed all these artists and Tarot card readers. It is only the illegal vendors--who were competing against us--that we had a problem with," said Hwan Song, chairman of the Venice Beach Merchants Assn. "I said, if we had to stay in the stores we would go broke, so we should just move to the west [sand] side."
Fosbinder said it would be "the height of foolishness" for the city to continue to contest the "hopelessly, pathetically unconstitutional" ordinance. "If they truly believe there is a problem to be solved here, they could make a much better effort to write a constitutionally acceptable ordinance." Robert (Jingles) Newman, president of Animal Freedom Fighters, a nonprofit animal rights group, was ticketed twice in April at the beginning of the police crackdown on vendors for selling T-shirts that read, "Meat Is Murder." He called Waters' order the first time the artists of Venice Beach have been given a fair shake.
"I think it's wonderful," Newman said. "They should be dealing with people selling Seiko watches and not us selling . . . T-shirts."
Times staff writer John Glionna contributed to this story.