Daniel Rubin | Balancing rights of freedom to sing

Posted: June 25, 2007

Maybe you've heard about the case of Anthony Riley, the cherubic American Idol wannabe with the angelic tenor who didn't see why he should stop singing in Rittenhouse Square.

Charged with disorderly conduct, he has his day in court July 3.

Since being cuffed and spending 18 hours in jail, Riley's seen his star rise, singing for City Council, appearing on local television. He's become the smiling face of a city-wide movement of those who believe music is free speech, and that police have better things to do than arrest someone singing "A Change is Gonna Come."

Hard to argue with that.

But you probably haven't heard from Jonathan Frank, who lives 11 floors above that jewel of a square, in a most rarefied prison.

"I represent the other side of the argument," he says, sitting in his living room amid hundreds of books, a humming floor fan, and a pair of noise-canceling headphones bought for $35 at a store for hunters.

Frank is 63, retired from the Philadelphia schools. He spent most of his career in Kensington, advising vocational students. His high school had a music program. He likes music - even musicians.

"I am all for people developing their talents," he says. "I am not opposed to what the ACLU stands for. But the view that these are innocent people who merely want to exercise their freedom of expression, and here are these cold, fascist cops coming around, curtailing their rights - that is bull."

Isn't the 11th floor far from the buzz and din? we ask. But then Frank gives a short course in the physics of sound, explaining how waves bounce off the close buildings and seem to head right through the windows of his one-bedroom condo and into his sensitive ears.

"If someone at Curtis is playing the piccolo, that's different. I can hear drums played way, way across the square. It's just excruciating. You can't think. You can't read. You close the windows. You turn on a fan. You put hunter's muffs on. But the trouble is, if that guy decides to leave five minutes later, you can't [even] hear that the music has stopped."

Up here, over raspberry juice from Trader Joe's, he invites me to listen. Through open windows, there's a vague whir of traffic, a truck brake's shriek. But . . . nothing more.

For the last month, since police have asked the city solicitor to clarify the law on music in the park, there's been a kind of hush.

"Like the heaven of the Hindus," says Frank.

The police asked for clarification of the rules, says City Solicitor Romulo Diaz, who's seeking to balance the rights of musicians, neighbors and park-goers. City noise ordinances ban music after 10 p.m. A separate Fairmount Park Commission regulation requires permits for performances in places like Rittenhouse Square.

Then there's the First Amendment. And to ACLU staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper, singing in the park is just the sort of self-expression the constitution's framers meant to protect. That's State Rep. Babette Joseph's take, too.

Anthony Riley isn't charged with violating any park regulation. The 20-year-old's up on a disorderly conduct charge and faces a three-month sentence.

Sitting in the office of his lawyer, Evan Shingles, Riley says his only fault is always wanting to know "the why" behind things.

So after the West Philly native had been singing and hanging in the park on the night of March 27 for six hours, he wanted to know why Officer Greg Wilkinson told him to "shut up" around 9 p.m. Wilkerson isn't giving interviews.

Riley says he asked what the law was about singing, and the police officer told him he was the law.

Then Riley sang louder - Sam Cooke's civil rights anthem - and offered his hands out to be cuffed. He got his wish.

The funny thing is that Riley and guitarist Robby Torres say they can empathize with Frank. When he's gone to them in the past to complain about drums and horns, they've commiserated.

"I think we should keep it to acoustic instruments and voice," says Torres, 29, a heavily inked West Virginia transplant with Bob Dylan's beard. "Our intent isn't to trouble the residents of Rittenhouse Square. Our intent is to be able to sit under a tree and strum a guitar."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com. Read his work at http://go.philly.com/danrubin.

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