Today Councilmember Andy King will introduce legislation that would require costumed characters in Times Square to pay a registration fee of $175, carry a photo ID, submit to a background check, and face fines for noncompliance. "If you're out there in a costume and we can't recognize who you are, we're gonna ask you to present ID," King says. "If you can't present ID, officers will have the option of asking you to leave the location, give you a fine, or removing you from the location."
King's bill, which focuses on so-called "Costumed Individuals," requires those who dress up or paint their faces "for the sole purpose of taking pictures for entertainment reasons" to pay a $175 registration fee to the Department of Consumer Affairs. "The fee can be waived depending on if you have any financial difficulties that would be hurtful for you to try and raise that fee," King adds.
A first violation of the law would cost the "Costumed Individual" as much as $50, $100 for a second, and $500 for additional infractions should the city decide to pursue legal action.
King dismisses the idea that his bill would punish immigrants, low-income workers, or those who merely want to exercise their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly.
"This is common sense legislation. It's humanistic, it's not an attack on any person's social existence, it's not an attack on immigrants, it's not telling officers to write more tickets, it protects everybody."
King adds, "It's about how to protect the 5-year-old, the 3-year-old, who experiences Sponge Bob on the TV screen when he's two inches tall. When they go to Times Square, he's six feet tall—that's a difficult reality for a kid and can be overwhelming."
Asked about costumed individuals who may visit Times Square with no intention of soliciting tips—on Halloween, for instance—King said they would not be "hassled" if they behaved. "There are a lot of good people who come out at Halloween, but a lot of people who are drunk out of their heads."
The proposed legislation has not yet been made publicly available, but an aide to King says it will be online this afternoon after it is introduced.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and several elected officials are on record supporting the bill, which was drafted with the input of the Times Square Alliance, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Mayor de Blasio also supports regulation: "I think this has gone too far," the mayor said earlier this summer. "It needs to be regulated."
Steven Shiffrin, professor emeritus at Cornell Law School and the author of numerous books on the First Amendment, says a law like this may not pass constitutional muster.
"Wearing costumes is a form of First Amendment expression, and the First Amendment does not permit government to charge its citizens as a pre-condition of exercising their rights," Shiffrin wrote in an email. "This principle takes on special force when the charge is exorbitant and when the purported justification for its imposition is so obviously a pretext."
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU, agrees.
“Times Square is one of the most heavily patrolled public spaces in the city if not the country," Lieberman said in a statement. "The police have the tools they need to protect public safety and freedom of expression in the public square. Rather than pass new laws that can sweep to broadly and have unattended consequences, we should focus on training the NYPD to use the tools they currently have at their disposal.”
King is confident his bill will pass, and disagrees with those who say his legislation serves to further sterilize an increasingly predictable city.
"You have the privilege to drive your car, but people could not understand how to obey the laws. That is reality. So we have Vision Zero, and that saves lives. In the case of the costumed characters, we can't make up an alternate reality. We are in a system of checks and balances."