The City of Providence can no longer stop musician Manuel Pombo (left) from performing or soliciting donations on city streets as part of a settlement reached today in a First Amendment lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.
The ACLU of Rhode Island filed a federal lawsuit in July on behalf of Pombo, a 62-year-old saxophonist, who had been arrested once, and threatened with arrest on numerous other occasions, while playing his saxophone on sidewalks and street corners in Providence. His “permission to perform” license issued by the city also prohibited Pombo from soliciting donations for his performances, and it allowed him to perform solely at the unbridled discretion of police officers. The ACLU argued this violated Pombo’s free speech and due process rights.
As a result of today’s settlement, filed in U.S. District Court, the City of Providence can no longer order Pombo to stop performing on public property or require him to obtain a permit to perform on public property absent violation of any other valid ordinances. The settlement agreement further stipulates that “because soliciting donations is protected speech under the First Amendment,” the City cannot stop Pombo from soliciting or accepting donations for his performances. The City also agreed to pay compensatory damages.
The lawsuit was filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Shannah Kurland and John W. Dineen.
Kurland said today: “We appreciate that the City was able to work with us to acknowledge Mr. Pombo's right to make music in public spaces. Let's hope that going forward municipal government will respect the Constitution without people having to sue our own city.”
Attorney Dineen added: "Ben Franklin, who was a busker in his early days, will be glad to see that the First Amendment still has some life in it, although it takes a street saxophonist and the ACLU to keep it going."
This is the third lawsuit in five years that the ACLU of Rhode Island has filed against the City of Providence for interfering with the exercise of free speech rights on City public property. Two years ago, a federal judge agreed with the ACLU that Providence police violated the free speech rights of a local resident when she was barred from peacefully leafleting on a public sidewalk in front of a building where then-Mayor David Cicilline was speaking. In 2014, the ACLU sued the Providence Police Department for violating the free speech rights of protesters at a fundraiser in Roger Williams Park for then-Gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo. That case is ongoing.