Artists on the march

By Patrick Smith

A band of about 10 Chicago artists took to the streets on Jan. 29 to protest the city’s peddler’s license law and what they called an infringement on their right to free speech.

The group, called The Free Speech Artists’ Movement, was led by Chicago artist Chris Drew, who has made defeating Chicago’s licensing laws his mission for the past three years because he said they violate the First Amendment. The small but vocal group started its circuitous march for free speech in front of Macy’s, 111 N. State St., headed southeast to Columbia’s campus and then circled back around to meet up with more protestors in front of the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza, 1 W. Washington Ave.

The peddler’s license has a long list of areas where selling is prohibited, and has a special “speech peddling” section that regulates the selling of artwork. The speech section requires all people selling “speech” to submit their artwork to the department of business affairs for approval, so the city can ensure the work “communicates a non-commercial message.” More information on the license and its alleged First Amendment violations can be found in the Jan. 25 issue of The Chronicle. According to Drew the prohibited areas in the license and the requirement that all work be submitted are a violation of his rights.

The artists walking with Drew said they agreed the license violated their rights.

“Artists should definitely have the right to sell their art out on the streets,” said Anka Karawicz, an artist who is part of the Movement.

Along the way, the protestors handed out original screen-printed pieces of art to people as they passed, each one pinned to a paper flyer explaining the group’s motive. Drew said he was pleased with the turnout and the effect the Movement was having, especially considering the sub-freezing temperatures.

“It’s been going great; I expected two or three people to join me in this kind of weather and we’ve got a crowd already,” Drew said. “It’s been a heck of a day.”

Artist Jenny Rotten said that aside from the constitutional issues at play, she had a more practical reason to march with Drew.

“I could really use the opportunity to sell my work on the streets [because] I’m unemployed,” Rotten said. “Art is free speech no matter if it’s for sale or not, and the first step is education.”

Columbia photography major Jay Polhill was given one of the group’s patches as he passed them on Columbia’s campus. He looked confused by the crude screen printing.

“I’m wondering what I’m supposed to do with it,” he said.

But after the group explained their cause and the alleged restriction on free speech, Polhill said he was happy to see them out protesting and that he agreed with their cause.

“It is a violation of the First Amendment,” Polhill said of the Peddler’s license law.

The movement participants began their march at 3 p.m. The choice to start in front of Macy’s on State Street was an especially meaningful decision. That was the site of Drew’s most recent arrest for selling his artwork for $1 on the streets. That arrest eventually led to Drew being charged with a felony for audio taping his arrest, as reported in The Chronicle on Jan. 25.

Hours before the protest began, Drew was in court in connection with that arrest. His attorney, Mark Weinberg, told the judge he and Drew wanted the case dismissed because the eavesdropping law under which he was charged is unconstitutional.

“My lawyer said we wanted to ask for a dismissal and we wanted 30 days to prepare a motion for dismissal,” Drew said. “In Feb. 26, we’ll be back in court to submit our petition for dismissal. [The court appearance only] took about 10 minutes or less.”

Until then Drew said he and his compatriots will keep going out and trying to raise awareness about the peddler’s license.

“I’m definitely sure we’re going to make an impact. We’re going to continue to give away our art until we get our rights,” Drew said. “If we can get this group of people out in this weather, imagine what we can do in May. But it doesn’t end in May, it goes on and on until we get our rights.”

Lowell Thompson, an artist who unveils his canvasses for free to crowds outside of The Art Institute of Chicago, said changing the law was not his top priority.

“The first issue is the culture,” Thompson said. “Because if the culture understands its own freedoms, then the second issue of the police would not be an issue.”