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."
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."
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — A movie theater chain says it is reviewing complaints after its Augusta theater showed scenes from the R-rated film "Sex Tape" instead of the children's movie "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" in a summer movie program for youngsters.
Regal Entertainment Group spokesman Russ Nunley said the theater experienced a "programming issue" at Regal Augusta Exchange.
In a statement to The Augusta Chronicle, Nunley said managers addressed concerns of movie patrons and sincerely apologized for what he called an unfortunate event.
Ellen Hotchkiss said she was late for the children's movie but walked in with several youngsters who are near middle school age in time to see actress Cameron Diaz removing clothing.
Staff members from the Knoxville, Tennessee-based Regal Entertainment handed out tickets for a later showing of the children's movie program.
ROSEVILLE, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota officials say a man who robbed a Ramsey County pawnshop at gunpoint is in custody in Georgia.
Roseville Police Lt. Lorne Rosand tells the St. Paul Pioneer Press 24-year-old Marvin Lee Clinton Spencer was arrested Tuesday and charged with three counts of first-degree aggravated robbery. Police say Spencer and his father robbed about $200,000 in jewelry from a Pawn America on July 21.
Police haven't found Spencer's father, who is charged via a warrant with attempted second-degree murder, first-degree aggravated robbery, unlawful possession of a firearm and two counts of second-degree assault.
Spencer was arrested in Doraville, Georgia, after a hotel patron overheard him discussing the robbery. Rosand says he'll likely be extradited to Minnesota.
ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the city should be a safe place for unaccompanied children who cross the U.S. border.
In a Tuesday news conference at City Hall, Reed said welcoming the children is the moral and right thing to do.
He said metro Atlanta and Georgia have growing immigrant populations and that it's important to send a signal that Atlanta will be a welcoming community.
Earlier this month, Gov. Nathan Deal said in a letter to President Obama that he was shocked to learn from federal officials that the Office of Refugee Resettlement had sent 1,154 unaccompanied children to Georgia between Jan. 1 and the end of June.
Reed said he hadn't read the governor's letter, but said "we're just on a different place on this."
ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Retail Association is reminding residents that the state's tax holiday is quickly approaching.
Officials say state and local sales taxes in most Georgia counties will be waived between Aug. 1 and 2. Officials say the tax exemption applies to computers, software and more worth less than $1,000, clothes and shoes worth less than $100 per item, and school supplies worth less than $20 per item.
Georgia Retail Association Executive Director Taylor Byrd says the tax holiday is good for retailers and Georgia families. Byrd says increased business during the tax holiday period is "good for our economy, because it means more work hours and higher payrolls."
GRA officials are expecting a back to school and college savings of about $2 billion statewide.
Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today:
1. ISRAELI TANK SHELLS SLAM INTO UN SCHOOL IN GAZA, KILLING 15
The strike that hit the crowded compound sheltering the war displaced comes amid Israel's heaviest air and artillery assault in more than three weeks of conflict with Hamas.
2. ABOUT 150 MAY BE TRAPPED IN LANDSLIDE IN WESTERN INDIA
Federal rescue workers are hampered by continuing rains and poor roads leading to the village of Ambe in the Maharashtra state where the disaster buried about 40 houses.
3. SHELLS HIT APARTMENT BUILDINGS IN EASTERN UKRAINE
Officials in the city of Donetsk say 19 people are dead in fighting between the government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
4. EU, U.S. HIT RUSSIA WITH ECONOMIC PENALTIES
Stocks take a tumble in Moscow after coordinated sanctions are aimed at increasing pressure on Putin to end his support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
5. HOUSE IS SET TO TAKE UP $17B VA OVERHAUL BILL
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6. AS WEALTHY CATALONIA EYES INDEPENDENCE, A NEEDY SPAIN HOLDS ON
The region's secession campaign promises profound consequences for the country as it emerges from its worst economic crisis in a generation, with the moneymaker as a major driver of growth.
7. IN STING, KIDS ARE FOUND WHO WERE NEVER REPORTED LOST
In a weeklong effort by the FBI to rescue child sex trafficking victims last month, 168 juveniles recovered, some as young as 11. Among them was a group that particularly troubles child welfare advocates: those whose disappearance was never made known to authorities.
8. WHAT TARNISHES POWERFUL PORTUGUESE FAMILY
The country's Espirito Santo family business survived wars, dictatorship, revolution and family feuds for almost 150 years. Now, it is being stripped of its wealth and influence amid accounting irregularities, huge unreported debts and a police investigation.
9. WHY NYC MULLS LAW FOR IMPERSONATORS
The city officials are turning up the heat on Times Square costumed characters in a bid to rein in a summertime spike in badly behaving characters, such as the Spider-Man accused of punching a police officer recently.
10. WHO IS STAYING IN THE BOOTH FOR THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Vin Scully, the 86-year-old Hall of Fame announcer will return for his record 66th season with the team in 2015.