_D5C5045brianby Brian Clarey

On July 22, Winston-Salem City Attorney Angela Carmon received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union calling the city’s position on buskers — street musicians who play for tips — unconstitutional.

The ACLU makes a good point: Freedom of creative expression is enshrined in the very first amendment to our most important document. And Winston-Salem’s busking ordinance imposes a licensing fee, hourly and neighborhood restrictions and a fine schedule on the practice.

But let’s put the busking ordinance aside for a minute — as well as the fact that as it stands it applies to maybe five guys — and talk about the ACLU itself.

Founded in 1920 to protect the First Amendment rights of striking workers and Americans of color, the ACLU eventually morphed into a schoolmarmish presence in American culture, wagging fingers and issuing shushes to anyone who dared cross the lines against anyone’s individual rights.

But in its nearly 100-year history, the association has defended free speech, held the line between church and state, fought for equal access to the polls and bashed censorship, even when the individual causes weren’t so popular.

In its agnosticism, it has stood up for the rights of communists, anti-war protestors, accused terrorists, prisoners, the Klan, Westboro Baptist Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A lot of people hate the ACLU. Until they don’t.

The ACLU protects against the tyranny of the majority, the will of the authoritarian, the overreach of institutions whose instinct is to oppress. Who else is going to do that for you?

Because the truth is that even though our rights are more or less clearly spelled out in our Constitution, those rights are infringed upon every day by law enforcement, government, businesses and the media. I’d venture to say that most Americans aren’t even fully aware of the slate of inalienable rights bestowed upon them by virtue of their citizenship. And even if they are, what are they going to do about it?

Jails, mental institutions and barrooms are full of those whose feel their rights have been infringed upon but don’t see any means of recourse.

Camel City busker Julian Robinson told the Winston-Salem Journal that he was the one who called in the ACLU after the city passed the ordinance in April.

“As far as I was concerned it was unconstitutional and the city wasn’t interested in hearing it,” he told the Journal.

Whether it is or is not remains to be seen — the city is planning a response, and if history serves as any guide, the ACLU is not likely to just shuffle off.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡