A thinly veiled assault on expression in Times Square

A person dressed as the Cookie Monster works for tips in Times Square on Monday in Manhattan. (April 07, 2013)
A person dressed as the Cookie Monster works for tips in Times Square on Monday in Manhattan. (April 07, 2013) Photo Credit: iStock

Come tomorrow, the City Council will take up the latest attempt to regulate the characters of Times Square. No, not the ones in your favorite Broadway show.

The council is again focused on Elmo and Spiderman, the Naked Cowboy and walking Statues of Liberty, and, yes, “desnudas,” the topless women who paint their chests and pose for pictures in exchange for payment.

Now, Councilmen Dan Garodnick and Corey Johnson have introduced legislation to allow the Department of Transportation to regulate pedestrian plazas and any commercial activity there. It seems like a thinly disguised and wrongheaded attempt to stop the performers.

At the core of the Big Apple is free expression that allows artists and performers to use the city as canvas and stage. It’s the mix of personalities and enterprising businesses that create a colorful oasis. Whether clad in suits and ties, costumes or body paint, our artists are inseparable from our vibrancy. The city mustn’t limit the palette.

The legislation would give broad power to the city’s DOT commissioner to determine what’s permitted in pedestrian plazas. Officials could allow commercial activity in designated areas, while prohibiting it in others.

Advocates, including the Times Square Alliance, say the regulations are meant to prevent harassment, and won’t go too far. Yet, the group also wants to extend the bill to busier sidewalks around the plazas. There’s nothing to prevent overreach. The bill opens the door for a ban or other ways to stop the characters and other performers. It starts a slippery slope, where regulation trumps freedoms, where performance and creativity is cuffed and penned.

Times Square’s street performers should be allowed to express themselves and interact with residents and tourists, if they don’t violate the law. If they harass anyone, or block street or sidewalk traffic, there are consequences. And officials can and should consider guidelines, including pricing, signage, and possible licensing for masked characters.

New York is known for having an edge. Don’t blunt it.