Every fall, Bulldog fans make their pilgrimage to Athens for the near-religious event held at Sanford Stadium. The streets of downtown are filled with football patrons visiting the shops, restaurants and bars that help make Athens’ downtown great.
Intermingled with the hum of cheering crowds is the melody of street performers competing for tips. One of these performers is bucket drummer Chris Harris, also known as “The Bucketman.” But this football season, thanks to a noise ordinance violation, he may be silent.
Harris, a resident of Tampa Bay, Fla., has traveled to Athens every fall for the last 10 years in order to perform for the crowds downtown. His parents live in Covington, and he stays there during the fall in order to save money.
Street performing is how he makes a living to help support his wife and baby, and he travels all over the Southeast to perform at different festivals and events.
On Sept. 4, the opening game against Louisiana-Lafayette, Harris was ticketed by Athens-Clarke County police for a noise violation. This is the first ticket Harris has received in Athens.
Harris said he was playing on the corner of College Avenue and Clayton Street downtown when a couple of police officers walked up to him and informed him he was violating a noise ordinance. They gave him a ticket, and told him he would have to leave.
Harris said the noise ordinance is unfair to him and is in violation of his First Amendment rights.
“All street performers have protection in freedom of speech,” Harris said. “There are court cases that have set precedence protecting street performers.”
Harris’ claim was further confirmed by University law professor Randy Beck.
“The First Amendment protects freedom of speech which includes street musicians,” he said. “Governments can set limitations on the time, place and noise level of performing music as long as they
are not discriminating against a performer because of lyrics or style.”
A noise violation is defined by the Athens-Clarke County Code of Ordinances as producing a plainly audible sound that can be heard more than 300 feet away between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 7 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. For the remaining hours, sound heard 100 feet away is prohibited.
Harris said the ordinance is too vague and it is not systematically enforced.
“I haven’t been too loud for them for the past 10 years. Why did they decide to ticket me now?” Harris said.
Harris is not the only Athens musician to be ticketed.
Saturday, Athens-Clarke County Police issued a ticket to another street performer in the same area where Harris was ticketed. Jason Elder, 31, was playing his guitar, harmonica and a cymbal attached to his shoe. He was cited and told police “there was no way he could play his music and stay within the guidelines of the ordinance.”
But Harris may not be packing up his buckets just yet.
He is seeking legal counsel in order to fight his citation.
However, this might be hard for Harris because of the exactness in time and distance of his specific case, Beck said.
“Right now, I will just have to pay the fine,” he said. “It’s too much trouble to fight without a lawyer.”