Act Locally » December 22, 2009
Free Speech, for Arts Sake
A Chicago sidewalk salesman prepares to sue his city.
CHICAGO, IL.–On November 13, the hordes of holiday season shoppers encountered a sight rarely seen in downtown Chicago: an artist selling art on the sidewalk. Near the entrance to Macy’s at the corner of Randolph and State Streets, artist and activist Chris Drew displayed an array of $1 patches and a prominent “Art for Sale” sign affixed to his bright red poncho. His conspicuous appearance attracted several customers over the course of his two-and-a-half-hour vigil, but most of the attention he received was of a less positive nature. Four police officers stopped to tell him that what he was doing was illegal. One wrote him a ticket.
Today, however, this attention was welcome. Drew knows it’s illegal to sell art in most of downtown Chicago and other prohibited districts. As the leader of the Free Speech Artists’ Movement group, he chose to violate this law and incur a fine because he intends to sue the city for violating his First Amendment rights.
“During the Iraq War, when I went out to try to sell my patches on the street, I discovered why it’s so hard for artists to survive in Chicago,” Drew says. “I got a peddler’s license, then a speech permit for certain corners of the Loop. It has three pages of prohibited districts– every place you could make a living.”
Drew maintains that the city of Chicago infringes on artists’ speech rights in multiple ways. According to the rules of the speech permit, “every month you have to show them all the art you’re going to sell in the next month, so the bureaucratic structure doesn’t allow any topical speech. Everything is censored by prior restraint. You’re limited to a small audience because you’re nailed to only that corner. And the license itself is a violation, because you shouldn’t need to license speech.”
The ACLU of Illinois also finds fault with Chicago’s peddling restraints. According to Senior Staff Counsel Adam Schwartz, “Speech peddling is clearly within the domain of First Amendment given protections. Our concern is that Chicago has created large blackout zones for expressive peddling in the city.” As for the $165 fee for a two-year peddler license, Schwartz says, “we think that’s excessive.”
In 1997, a marijuana legalization advocate named Wendy Ayres successfully sued the city for her right to sell T-shirts at city-sponsored park festivals. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Ayres v. City of Chicago that “Harm anticipated by city…in terms of increased congestion and loss of revenue from authorized T-shirt seller, was trivial, while harm to organization resulting from denial was great, in that festivals presented enormous potential audience for its message.”
Drew hopes that the courts will be similarly sympathetic to his case. “The homeless have won their speech rights,” he says, referring to the 1983 case Thompson v. City of Chicago, which ended with the city settling and repealing its anti-panhandling law. “A homeless artist can beg a dollar from you legally, but if he draws your portrait on a paper plate he cannot legally sell it to you.”
In the Ayres case, and in justifying its current ban on street food vendors, the city and aldermen have argued that vendors worsen congestion on busy sidewalks. Drew dismisses this claim, pointing out that selling art is no worse than handing out fliers. “They [the city] are meeting less compelling needs,” he says. “They don’t want us to compete with brick-and-mortar businesses. And politicians like the idea of preventing artists from having free expression, because it’s less pressure on them.”
Contrary to the city’s fears of competition, Drew believes street artists could strengthen the local economy. “When artists have freedom, the whole city prospers,” he says. But when artists abdicate their rights–as he thinks they have done in Chicago–the consequences are widespread. “As artists, we polish our speech. If you make it illegal for us to speak, you’ve cut out the most important speech–you’ve censored society.”
Drew will go to court for his fine on December 17, where he plans to plead guilty. After that he expects it to take another three to six months before the appellate courts hears his case. “It’s taken us three years to sue,” he says. “We’ve been building support all this time. And once this case is over, we won’t be anywhere close to done.”
Robin Peterson is a former managing editor of the Chicago Weekly, an alternative weekly of Chicago's South Side. Originally from Troy, Ohio, she attended the University of Chicago and is a former editorial intern at In These Times.