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Street-artist ban unconstitutional?

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Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson's effort to help street artists scratch out a living on city sidewalks was questioned by the City Council on Tuesday.

Currently, city ordinances ban the sale of street art, much to the chagrin of the City Attorney's Office, which says the ban violates constitutional protections of free speech.

"Unless we pass this ordinance, we will be in violation of the Constitution," deputy city attorney Larry Spendlove said of Anderson's proposed Sidewalk Entertainers and Artists Ordinance.

But some council members, like Dale Lambert, feel there may be better ways to bring the city in line with the Constitution. Chief among the sticking points is Anderson's desire not to regulate street artists.

Under Anderson's proposal, artists wouldn't need vendor permits from the city; would receive little, if any, city oversight; and could set up shop in commercial districts and parks throughout the city, including Library Square. Artists could set up in proximity to special events, other artists, art galleries, entrances to businesses, intersections and other locations.

"I cannot conceive that we have to have a more expansive ordinance than San Francisco, which everybody looks to as the mecca for street performers and street artists," Lambert complained, saying street artists are mooching off established, permit-paying events like the Farmers Market at Pioneer Park.

San Francisco charges street artists a $350 yearly fee.

Anderson, with the city attorney's recommendation, is asking the City Council to permit street artists to sell "reproduced" art. City attorneys have argued that various federal court rulings make it unconstitutional for a city to ban the selling of reproduced art.

But with little agreement over what "reproduced art" actually is, some fear the selling of such wares could lead to Tijuana-style knickknacks being peddled all over the city.

Under a temporary test street artists' ordinance, which expired last November, Councilwoman Nancy Saxton said some artists were selling their own creations but "other vendors were basically selling stuff from Mexico and other imports."

Saxton, speaking before Tuesday's council meeting, said she also has concerns about allowing street artists to operate in front of small businesses and on city streets without a permit. That seems to be unfair competition, she said, since businesses have to pay licensing fees and are heavily regulated by the city.

"Yes, we need street artists, and yes, they need to be licensed and pay sales tax," said Pam O'Mara, owner of Utah Artists Hands, a gallery that sells local art. "I mean, the taco vendors have to pay $75 a year" for a permit.

Councilman Dave Buhler, also speaking before Tuesday's meeting, conceded artists should have some First Amendment rights.

But "when they start selling their art, that crosses the line into commercial ground," he said. "They should be treated similar to other people who sell items and have business licenses, sales tax collection, etc."

Linda Cordova, the city's property manager, has suggested the city adopt a method of regulating and permitting street artists.

The council is considering options regarding the ordinance, including hiring outside legal counsel to give additional advice. It won't take a vote on the ordinance for weeks, possibly months.

E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com