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West Chester Attempts to Regulate Free Speech

by C. Moore

WEST CHESTER, PA — At the second public hearing for a proposed ordinance to regulate street performers, the problems with creating a law that violates the Constitution of the United States became increasingly apparent. In fact, the ordinance is so problematic that a third public hearing has been scheduled for October 18 at 6PM.

Police Chief Scott Bohn and Mayor Carolyn Comitta

Police Chief Scott Bohn and Mayor Carolyn Comitta

At the request of the Borough, Police Chief Scott Bohn tried to explain why the ordinance would help the police. Part of the reason they are trying to pass this ordinance is because Mayor Comitta and Police Chief Bohn are already embroiled in allegations of hate crimes and civil rights violations against street performers. Two musicians have been assaulted by West Chester Police officers and wrongfully arrested. Dozens of citizens have been wrongfully cited. The proposed ordinance would attempt to legalize criminal activities committed by the Borough Police.

Borough council members held a slugfest for the next two hours suggesting a multitude of changes. Ironically, one of the most significant changes was to the Purpose of the ordinance, changing “the Borough Council therefore seeks to encourage such performances” to “the Borough Council therefore seeks to regulate such performances”.

Eventually, comments by the public were heard. The overwhelming majority of the comments were against any attempts to regulate free speech; however, a couple of music haters did voice their opinion.

The West Chester Business Improvement District (BID) executive director, Malcolm Johnstone has been accused of committing hate crimes and civil rights violations; nevertheless, he stated his support for the ordinance.

Residents Boycott Penn's Tavern

Residents Boycott Penn’s Tavern

Only one business came out in favor of the ordinance. The owner of Penn’s Table Restaurant complained that the artists blocked the public right-of-way. The audience found this quite hypocritical since Penn’s Table Restaurant’s customer seating on the sidewalk impedes the public thoroughfare on a daily basis.

Comments against the ordinance came from a wide array of artists, performers and fans. A songwriter and arranger (who has written hundreds of songs at the corner of Gay and Church Streets) voiced his concern about police mistakenly accusing him of performing. He then presented pages of unsolicited signatures from individuals opposed to regulating the arts.

After the meeting the resident stated, “If you want to see me perform, I get on stage and you have to buy a ticket. ‘Street Performance’ is an oxymoron.”

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