It looks as if the streets of Alexandria will be filled with the sound of music this summer after all.
A federal court judge yesterday struck down as unconstitutional a controversial city ordinance banning street musicians from the sidewalks there.
District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. took less than an hour to decide that the month-old Alexandria ordinance was too broad and restrictive of street musicians' free speech rights. "Sidewalks are a traditional area for First Amendment expression," he said.
Three weeks ago, Judge Oren Lewis, hearing the same case, had rejected bagpiper Lee Davenport's request for an order temporarily blocking enforcement of the law. Davenport lost that one, but yesterday he was back in court with his lawyers yesterday for round two.
In addition to banning musicians from the streets of Alexandria's central business district, including much of the historic Old Town area, the law restricted them to certain designated spaces. Permits to play in these areas were to be provided at the discretion of the city manager on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Bryan yesterday found the city's criteria for the issuance of permits too vague and further ruled that the provided spaces were inadequate. "To say that these performers can go to the residential district is not a reasonable alternative. And it's no answer to say that they street musicians can go elsewhere in the city to play. Those who exercise First Amendment rights are entitled to an audience that will be receptive to their performance."
Assistant City Attorney Barbara Beech argued that the law adequately defined who was eligible to play and where, and that the law was necessary to protect the rights of pedestrians on Alexandria's downtown sidewalks.
But Davenport's attorneys Alan Cohen and Kenneth Labowitz countered that the ordinance was drawn broadly enough to include Christmas carolers, tour groups and any other group that happened to walk the street together. Bryan agreed, saying that the law "suffers from overbreadth."
"I'm very happy," said Davenport, who initially brought suit against the city to the tune of $5,000, but later dropped his request for damages.
"Justice has been served," said City Councilman James Moran, who had opposed the law. "I think it was a travesty for us to have gotten involved in that area in the first place. Street musicians add to the ambience we've been trying to achieve for years."
Alexandria Vice Mayor Robert Calhoun, a supporter of the law, expressed disappointment with the ruling and predicted the issue will be reconsidered when the council reconvenes.
"The council doesn't meet until September," Labowitz later chortled. "That means August is free and clear."