ACLU suing city over police harrassment of street musician

(Justin White, WPRI-TV)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is filing a lawsuit against the city of Providence — for the third time in five years — for interfering with free speech.

Specifically, on city streets and sidewalks, where Manuel Pombo, 62, has been arrested once and threatened with arrest on several occasions, because he was playing a saxophone.

The non-profit advocacy group announced the lawsuit Tuesday morning at a news conference at their Providence office.

Pombo purchased a “permission to perform” license from the city about twenty years ago, according to an ACLU news release. He’s played at WaterFire and elsewhere, but in recent years officers have started approaching him to a significant degree and ordering him to stop playing.

In July 2013, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and refusal to exhibit a peddler’s license, the ACLU said; the charges were later dismissed.

WPRI.com and Eyewitness News have reached out via email to officials at the city of Providence, but as of 2 p.m. Tuesday, they had not responded to inquiries.

The ACLU’s lawsuit claims the permitting conditions are unconstitutional, saying it’s placing “prior restraint” on free speech — and that Pombo cannot be barred from soliciting donations for his performances.

“I now live in constant fear of being arrested for playing my music… This is not the way a city that claims to be arts-friendly should treat anybody,” Pombo said in the news release.