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Ticket me Elmo? NYC mulls law for impersonators


NEW YORK (AP) - New York City officials are turning up the heat on Elmo, Cookie Monster and Statue of Liberty impersonators - Times Square costumed characters who often demand money for posing in photos with tourists.

The city wants to rein in a summertime spike in badly behaving characters such as the Spider-Man accused of punching a police officer recently.

"This has gone too far," a frustrated Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week. "It's time to take some real steps to regulate this reality."

Spider-Man Arrest Could Spur Times Square Performer Rules

But that could be easier said than done. Legal experts say proposals for a city law to possibly require licenses and background checks could violate free-speech rights.

At issue is whether the characters can be considered street performers protected by the First Amendment or whether they are engaged in commercial activity subject to regulation. It depends on whether the characters merely hope for tips or demand money. Some tourists have complained about being harassed for payment.

"If you can prove that they are there to seek money, not simply conveying a message ... they are subject to greater regulation," said Jesse Choper, a constitutional law professor at the University of California.

In about the past year, a Cookie Monster was accused of shoving a 2-year-old and an Elmo was heard berating tourists with anti-Semitic slurs.

There also have been recent reports of a brawl between two Statue of Liberty impersonators and a man dressed as Woody from "Toy Story" groping women.

Last Saturday, a man dressed as Spider-Man was arrested on charges he slugged a police officer who tried to intervene during a dispute with a woman who offered him a $1 tip. Authorities say the crime-fighting hero told the woman he only accepts $5, $10 or $20.

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, said any regulations must be written carefully to avoid arbitrary enforcement. Singling out just those who wear costumes, for example, could be problematic.

"When politicians call for regulating someone in a costume, it's clearly inane," he said. "You have people on Wall Street who violate the law, and we don't subject people in Armani suits to special regulations."

City Councilman Dan Garodnick, a Manhattan Democrat who is drafting legislation to address the issue, said the details are still being worked out. "We're trying to balance First Amendment rights of individuals with the need to protect people from what has become garden-variety harassment."

In Los Angeles, costumed characters have brawled outside the famed TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, vying for sidewalk turf while expecting as much as $20 in tips from visitors.

New York's regulation push is backed by the nonprofit Times Square Alliance, which on a recent night counted no less than 76 costumed characters prowling the square. Another local group, the Broadway League, blames the aggressive characters for a downturn in theater business.

"They're making it a commercial enterprise. They're selling a service and asking for money," said the league's Charlotte St. Martin.

Another issue involves copyrights since most of the costume wearers are not authorized by the characters' owners, including Disney and Sesame Street.

On a sunny afternoon, Times Square was filled with about two dozen characters, including multiple Elmos, a Minnie Mouse, a Hello Kitty and more than one copper-green-skinned Statue of Liberty. At least two characters - Minion from "Despicable Me" and one Elmo - said they purchased their knockoff costumes, made in Peru, for about $300.

Speaking in Spanish through their masks, several people acknowledged they are living in the U.S. illegally and said they rely on Times Square tips to feed their families. City officials acknowledged that some of the characters are in the country without legal permission but said they don't know how many.

Pablo Fuentes, 40, an unemployed construction worker with four children from Paterson, New Jersey, said he works five days a week as Minion, earning about $55 for each six-hour shift.

"A license would be good for everybody, for the customer, for us, for you," he said. "This is a job, and we're not doing something wrong. Everybody needs a job."
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bonschwein July 30 2014 at 7:53 AM

These characters are getting uglier by the day!

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palm2008 July 30 2014 at 9:21 AM

I was in NYC last summer with my granddaughter and we were constantly been approached by these characters. Of course a child wants her picture taken with these characters but certainly did not understand that they do not do this for free. The thing is that they approached us and than expected to be paid. It is like playing on a small childs emotions. I saw one character chase a woman through Times Square because she did not give him money. Pretty certain she did not realize that she had to pay for this so called service.

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Aissa2 July 30 2014 at 8:48 AM

Sadly, NYC is the place where ingenuity in terms of what can make money is always high priority. Horse and buggies out, impersonators IN. Problem is that they are not sanctioned by Disney. They are in that gray area which I hope Disney and NYC addresses. No more than a person condoned by Disney would be allowed to behave badly, regardless of the knockoff status of the costumes being worn for money, they should be held accountable. Hitting a police officer in NYC? Demanding $5, 10 or 20 dollars? Just like you can't panhandle like you are extorting money, this needs to be stopped. NYC is one of the places where there are many tourists and they should not have to worry about catching the right transportation, being on the right street, maneuvering around pedestrians and those who live in NYC and also worry about being threatened or gauged by a childhood character. Now, hopefully Bill will address this as quickly as Bloomie used to address stuff which was none of his business!

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Mike July 30 2014 at 8:15 AM

Certainly sounds like NYC with a cast of deranged characters acting out while asking for money.

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1 reply
Aissa2 Mike July 30 2014 at 8:42 AM

Really? We slamming NYC now? Must be one of those Amish or someone who lives in the sticks where one light is something to jump up and down!

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josephbos July 30 2014 at 9:14 AM

What's to prevent a terrorist from dressing up in a costume and setting off a bomb in Times Square? These characters are creepy! Need to be taken.

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aaldrew July 30 2014 at 9:02 AM

Punched a cop? Estupido....

Flag Reply +1 rate up
jstice4ever July 30 2014 at 8:20 AM

I'm willing to bet that if the city partnered with the companies that own these licenses to sue the problematic imitators, then they would straighten up real quick. You can dress up like any character you want without violating any copyright laws, but once you start making money off a license without written permission you can beheld accountable for serious money.

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jeld803 July 30 2014 at 11:40 AM

thought the city cleaned up times square. get this ilk off the streets. why is it legal to operate a business on a public street. didn,t they ban street vendors

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Bill July 30 2014 at 12:00 PM

It is pretty sad to come to this country illegally so you can wear a Tickle Me Elmo suit and demand tips.

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jrexmarda July 30 2014 at 12:22 PM

What a strange place that is. I was there several years ago. Saw a lot of living statues of liberty walking around everywhere. On the subway young men would break dance in the aisle for $$$. Only one that didn't bother us for a buck was the skinny guy with a long white beard carrying a huge bundle on his shoulders. I swear, everytime I turned around, there he was. All the food tasted the same too. No need to drop acid there. Very very odd place, like going down the rabbit hole.

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