NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City officials on Monday tackled Spider Man, Elmo and other fictional favorites with a proposal to intensify a crackdown on the costumed street performers who wander Times Square and pose with tourists for tips.
If passed, the law would require licensing, background checks and other regulatory measures for the costumed characters in what City Council member Andy King, author of the measure, called a public safety concern.
"This is not about violating anybody's First Amendment rights," King said on a busy Times Square sidewalk to jeers from nearby protesters. "This bill is strictly about safety in the city of New York City."
City leaders, business owners and police started a clamp-down in recent months after several characters were arrested for assault, harassment and other crimes while on the job.
In July a man dressed as Spiderman allegedly punched a police officer after aggressively demanding tips from passersby.
"Times Square as quirky is fine, but creepy is not," said Tim Tompkins, head of The Times Square Alliance, which promotes area businesses and helped draft the ordinance.
But supporters say most street performers are law-abiding and that the proposals, which would restrict where performers could work and entail a waiting period and $170 licensing fee, would limit their ability to provide for their families.
"It'll have people without their jobs for months," said Elizabeth Holland, 26, who works as a costumed undercover agent.
Holland and a few dozen other costumed performers showed up to protest Monday's announcement of the proposed rules.
Several spoke Spanish as their first language, including Gregory Perez, 28, who wore a Mickey Mouse outfit.
"The point is that we're not here to scare the people. We're just working like anybody else," Perez said.
The characters have fought back by forming the Association of Artists United for a Smile, which aims to preserve their rights to work in character on the streets.
As of last month, more than 100 performers joined the group, which is backed by the immigrant worker advocacy group La Fuente.
La Fuente Executive Director Lucia Gomez said the proposed legislation would wrongly privatize public space and would not increase safety.
She asked officials to work with performers to find a solution to protect the public and workers' rights.
"The one reality is that things can't stay the same," she said.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Beech)