Michigan ACLU Files Federal Lawsuit Against Saugatuck Over Street Musician Arrest
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit in Grand Rapids Wednesday against the City of Saugatuck in a case involving two street musicians - one who was arrested here last summer.
Gabriel Sikon Novak, 19, of Birmingham, MI, was arrested last June after authorities first asked him to leave a Butler Street sidewalk (he did) and then returned the next day and began playing saying he had a constitutional right to do so.
After refusing several requests to vacate the sidewalk - a public right-a-way - Novak was then arrested and spent two nights in the Allegan County Jail charged with violating a Saugatuck ordinance of not having a public entertainment license and a felony count of assaulting/resisting/obstructing a police officer.
Novak later plead guilty to disturbing the peace and paid a $425 fine. The felony charge was dismissed.
Another college musician, viola player Christopher Waechter, was not arrested, but also claims his free speech rights were violated.
The federal lawsuit against the city stems from that incident.
“Silencing artists for playing music in public is an egregious violation of free speech principles,” Michael Steinberg, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union, said Wednesday, in a written statement.
“It’s not a case of the city not wanting music or musicians here and not a case of free speech rights, but of public safety,” said Harrier.
“This case dealt with public safety and protecting the city’s right-of-ways. The performer was told he could play in our city park where he would not cause a safety issue by drawing crowds of people on the busy sidewalks. He was twice asked to leave by authorities and he refused. So he was arrested. He also had not obtained a public performance permit which is required.
“The bottom line it was a public safety issue and concern, not a free speech rights issue,” added Harrier.
The Saugatuck city manager also questioned why the ACLU did not contact his office - or anyone from the city - prior to filing the federal lawsuit.
In a written email to Steinberg, Harrier was obviously perturbed about never having been contacted by the ACLU before it filed the lawsuit. In the email, Harrier stated:
“If the ACLU had an issue it was compelled to look into why wouldn’t you contact the city first to discuss, or at least try to get all the facts in this matter, versus filing a federal lawsuit and issuing a press release with inaccurate and one-sided information?”
“It seems the ACLU is more interested in creating drama and costing taxpayers unnecessary legal expenses versus actually working towards solutions to issues in a cost-effective and productive manner. Just wondering why?” wrote Harrier.
“One would think there would be more of an ethical responsibility on your part to contact a person before filing a lawsuit against them.”
Steinberg responded: “Given that there is a case filed and I’m sure you have counsel, I have an ethical duty not to speak with you without permission from your counsel. I’m more than happy to speak with you about this though, with permission from counsel.”
Harrier said he has turned the matter over to the city attorney.