Chris Drew says the city’s laws may prevent him from selling his art, but there's no law against giving it away.
But when he sets up his small square print patches, he says the cops always show up anyway.
Last Friday, as Drew sat in Daley plaza for a free speech rally he organized, plaza security guards and a Chicago police officer repeatedly asked to see his permit, then asked him to move his sign from a step to the sidewalk, then asked whether he was allowed to screen print on the sidewalk. Finally, after several calls to the company that manages the Daley Center, the guards left him alone.
Drew set up his frame on the sidewalk to screen-print squares of fabric with multi-colored messages that read “Free Speech Artists’ Movement” and “Yes, We Can.”
Drew believes the city’s speech licensing program violates his First Amendment rights.
“Why do we have to pay for the right to speak in America when it should be free?” Drew says.
Drew, who also runs the Uptown Multicultural Arts Center, a non-profit organization that teaches artists how to screen print, has been printing his free speech patches in public for 16 years.
In Chicago, artists who want to sell their work on city streets can apply for a speech-peddling permit, according to Efrat Stein, spokesperson for the Chicago’s department of Business and Licensing. Speech peddling allows people to sell items that have a non-commercial message, like a book or a piece of art.
The one-month permits allow a person to stand in one of 10 spots around the Loop, Stein says. To obtain a permit, an artist must pay $165 for a two-year peddler’s license. The speech peddling permits only apply to the Loop – art can’t be sold on any other Chicago streets. Violators can be fined up to $200 for each offense.
The law was written in 1999, following a federal appeals court ruling that struck down an earlier ordinance that prohibited a woman from selling t-shirts advocating the legalization of marijuana at the city's Taste of Chicago festival.
Patricia Burnett, 40, stopped at Drew’s rally last week to find out what he was doing and picked up one of the patches he screen printed. She says she thinks art is important to Chicago.
“It’s what makes us different from everybody else,” she says, “It’s what makes the city unique.”
However, she says she understand the city’s concerns about traffic and crowding. “You can’t have 1,600 artists here all sitting on the corner,” Burnett says.
But Drew says the laws constrict Chicago’s art culture and the ability of artists to make a living and develop an audience. The law requires an artist to submit copies of their work and sell only that material.
Stein says the provision is designed to weed out the sale of commercial items and that the content is otherwise not evaluated. She also says permits take only a day to process. But Drew says the restriction ends up limiting what artists can say, and as a result, no one applies for them.
"By the time the news cycle for that particular topic is over, you're still waiting to have your work approved," Drew says.
Stein says no one has applied for a speech permit this year. “It’s very uncommon. I would say less than 10 people apply each year,” she says.
David Greene, executive director of the Oakland, Calif.-based First Amendment Project, says the ordinance is constitutional on its face, but the threat of police harassment or restrictions of certain corners may create a chilling effect on speech – self-censorship that occurs when people fear they might be punished for speaking.
“People might choose not to deal with these permits because the police might hassle them, even if they’re not doing anything wrong,” Greene says.
However, Greene also says Chicago’s ordinance is clear, and the government has a right to regulate streets and sidewalks.
“We don’t have an unlimited right because of our freedom of speech to claim any portion of the sidewalk,” Greene says.
Likalee Tamay, 29, a photographer who volunteered at Drew’s rally, says the restrictions cause many Chicago artists to move elsewhere. She says she may leave because she can’t make money as an artist here.
Drew’s rally almost didn’t happen. Last year, his application to hold the same rally at Daley plaza was denied. This year, Drew says Andre Wiggins, assistant general Manager of MB Realty, which manages Daley Plaza and the adjacent Daley Center, told him he would need a $1 million dollar insurance policy.
Wiggins said the insurance requirement is standard for events at Daley Plaza. According to local insurance agent Mike Linderman, such a policy would cost about $300.
Kevin Smith, public information officer for the Public Building Commission, says the policy exists to protect the plaza and the people in it, not to create a barrier for speech rights.
But following inquiries by the Chi-Town Daily News, Drew was told the insurance requirement would be waived. Wiggins said the requirement was waived because Drew wasn’t using any equipment or having anything erected, like a table or a sign.
Drew says going through red tape or being hassled by police won’t stop his campaign to change the law.
“We speak for everybody,” he says, “When you censor all the polished voices, just imagine how much of the general marketplace of ideas we miss.”