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Ocean City ban on boardwalk soliciting upset


A federal judge yesterday threw out Ocean City's ban on boardwalk solicitors and questioned the City Council's motive in passing it.

The law, approved in early May, prohibited jugglers, musicians, politicians and others from soliciting on the boardwalk during peak summer months. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, solicitors sued, saying that the law violated their right of free speech.

Council members claimed they were merely trying to deal with burgeoning boardwalk traffic and the safety problems that had resulted.

But in an opinion filed yesterday, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said he suspected the city's real purpose was to protect local merchants from competition.

The sweeping restrictions were overbroad and were applied inconsistently -- some groups were banned, while others were allowed -- and the law violated the First Amendment, he concluded.

City Councilman Jim Mathias, who owns two businesses on the boardwalk, denied that fear of competition was behind the law.

"I know what my motivation's always been, and that's concern with pedestrian safety on the boardwalk," Mr. Mathias said.

He said several incidents last year had intensified the council's fears.

City officials worried that a knife- and flame-throwing juggler who showed up last summer would injure a bystander. They were concerned when a one-man band produced virtual gridlock along the boardwalk. And they bristled when large clusters of pro-smoking activists pestered tourists for signatures on petitions.

Under the law, solicitors were allowed to do business only on the less-busy side of Baltimore Avenue, a main thoroughfare that separates the boardwalk area from residential areas. They also were permitted to go farther up the boardwalk to the west side of the Coastal Highway.

But solicitors argued that there was not enough foot traffic there to make their efforts worthwhile.

James Starck, a puppeteer of 15 years and frequent performer on the boardwalk, said he was "quite happy" about the decision, but remained skeptical.

"The City Council will do something else now, you watch," he said.

Mr. Mathias said he expects the council to try to revise the law.

"The problem is not going to go away," he said. "Hopefully the town, with its wisdom, will come up with something that will protect us and also protect everyone's constitutional rights."

Deborah Jeon, an attorney with the ACLU, said she thinks a workable law is possible if the restrictions are narrowed.

"As the judge concluded, this ordinance was overbroad," she said. "I think it's a victory for those who want to speak on the public sidewalks."

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