A few years ago, an Ocean City man got some attention by proposing a "smoke-free" zone for Ocean City vacationers. That never happened, but now officials of Maryland's colorful Atlantic coastal resort have come up with something else for the beach: a constitution-free zone.
Free speech and expression are now off-limits on Ocean City's boardwalk, courtesy of an overreaching ban on vendors and street performers passed by the City Council there. U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Young in Baltimore this week refused to grant an injunction against the town's new law until a court challenge can be heard next month. A non-profit group that sold t-shirts with environmental messages along the boardwalk is challenging the law, and the American Civil Liberties Union is considering getting involved, too.
Ocean City officials said they want to ban vendors from the wooden walkway for safety reasons: The vendors clog pedestrian traffic. Boardwalk entertainers who juggle knifes or torches also endanger passersby, they said. Their effort, though, seems a thinly veiled attempt to block competition for the shops that front on the boardwalk.
Among most visitors' safety concerns at Ocean City, getting hit by an errant, juggled object ranks low on the list. As for pedestrian traffic snarls, when Ocean City swells to become Maryland's second-largest city in summer, the boardwalk will be jammed, vendors or not.
Will this law undercut some of the features that make Ocean City such a draw for families year after year? The man who builds huge Bible scenes in the sand, for example, apparently won't be able to do his art so close to the boardwalk or to put out a tip jar. What of the roving vendors who comb the beach, shooting photographs of vacationers to sell in little "telescopes"? Does that violate the new law?
Looking out for public safety would be laudible, but the town fathers seem to have few concrete examples of endangerment. As for protecting visitors from crowds on the boardwalk, we suspect anyone who comes to Ocean City and is surprised and dismayed by crowds on the boardwalk on a steamy July eve will
be upset to discover sand and surf there, too.