Cities Attack Panhandling, Compromise Free Speech Rights


October 4, 2013; The Republic


The decision of U.S. District Court Judge Neil V. Wake to overturn a 1988 Flagstaff, Arizona ordinance prohibiting begging in public is going to have wide-ranging ramifications. Judge Wake also prohibited Flagstaff officials from “interfering with, targeting, citing, arresting, or prosecuting any person on the basis of their act(s) of peaceful begging in public areas.” His rationale was that the Arizona anti-panhandling law criminalized free expression.

One of the plaintiffs in this case, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona and Flagstaff attorney Mik Jordahl, was an elderly Hopi woman arrested for begging for money for food and bus fare. In a statement, Marlene Baldwin said she was happy that the law was overturned and that she wouldn’t be “taken to jail just for speaking to people.”

Free speech may be the underlying issue that makes the Arizona case and others regarding panhandling so important. In Dallas, six people who protested at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University have filed suit against a city ordinance banning protest signs within 75 feet of a highway. Some of the protesters were arrested not for their signs, but for solicitation or panhandling.

What constitutes panhandling or solicitation? What constitutes a “sign”? What is protected free speech? These and other questions are all embedded in the anti-panhandling bans that many cities have adopted in response to local business interests who are unhappy with the physical presence of homeless people near their establishments.

Nonetheless, an increasing number of cities are following Flagstaff rather than the U.S. District Court. In Portland, Maine, panhandling, or even “loitering,” on traffic medians has been banned. (Lewiston, Maine has a similar ban.) The Portland law sounds something like the Dallas anti-protest ordinance, so it should be no surprise that the Portland law has been challenged in U.S. District Court by three plaintiffs: a woman who panhandles, and two men who participate in political demonstrations, alleging that the law compromises free speech rights. The Portland plaintiffs are being helped by the ACLU.

Remember that panhandlers will often hold a sign announcing that they are homeless or hungry, thus the linking of the lawsuits against panhandling to political free speech. Worcester, Massachusetts bans people from holding signs asking for help during specified hours of the day and in specific locations. As a result, the ACLU is suing there, claiming that the law violates both “the right to solicit donations peacefully in public and engage in political speech.” While politicians (and potentially local business interests) seem committed to enacting more of these laws, it appears that police aren’t particularly enthusiastic about ticketing and fining homeless people for asking for food and support, as evidenced by the tepid police enforcement of anti-panhandling laws in Anchorage, Alaska and Spokane, Washington.

In Boise, Idaho, where the city council was considering an anti-panhandling vote last month, one member of the council announced and explained her opposition: “When we have rights bumping up against each other, we need to balance them,” Lauren McLean said in her statement. “It’s important to me when I vote on issues requiring this balance that I make sure that the rights of the less fortunate aren’t sacrificed for the rights of others.” That neatly summarizes the issues at hand in cities’ consideration of anti-panhandling ordinances.

Do you think this isn’t an important issue? Just remember that when you’re ticketed for “panhandling” when you raise a protest sign at your next political demonstration.—Rick Cohen

  • The Homeless Guy

    It seems to me the main problem to all this is that the people who are creating these laws are not well versed in law, the constitution, and all that it entails. Not only are these people involved in local politics ignorant of what is legal and what is not legal, they also are not interested in doing what’s right for the whole city/state, but instead have become politicians only to forward a particular agenda, whether it be political, religious, or financial. Moderates have been run out of politics, and compromise is no longer a political tactic.

  • Paul McCoy

    There is a big difference between OXFAM America passing out flyers asking for donations for food and a guy going around saying, “Hey man got an extra cigarette, (change or whatever). These people are annoying and are a harrassment to the public. I was homeless in Boston for two years and I *NEVER* asked a stranger for a handout. Yes, homelessness and hunger are tough to endure, but in Boston there are plenty of places where a homeless man can get a FREE meal. They also give out free toiletries, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shaving cream and blades and even underwear. Only animals should beg. There is no way a citizen can discern when someone is truly homeless and from someone who is just a con man.

    I guy asks you for ‘spare change’ for a meal. How do you know if he will use that for food or heroin? Heroin is cheap enoug that you could be contributing to the heroin epidemic in this country. If you are truly homeless you can apply for food stamps. Proof of homelessness is required, (a letter from the shelter you live in).

    And what about the ones who beg you for a return bus ticket. Are they that stupid that they didn’t buy a roundtrip ticket before heading into the city. And some never take no for an answer. They try to wear you down

    Beggers prey on people’s sympathy. But 90% are just swindlers. In Boston you will get hit up 5 times just getting to the subway! Others imply a thinly veiled threat – it starts with “I just got out of prison…. You pay up because you fear he may be violent.

    Begging is not free sppech. They are not pushing an idea or a cause. They are salesmen, except the good Samiritan gets no product. Hopefully, they might get a ‘warm and fuzzy feeling’ for their donation nothing else. We have ‘do not call’ lists so you don’t get interrupted during your dinner by a gimme money plea. Why can’t pedestrians go from store to store with the same kind of ‘peace’?

    Some beggers tried to make people guilty because they have money to shop. But they could also be just as ppor as the pan handler. This is one reason fewer people shop downtown. They go to suburban malls where the cops keep panhandlers off the premises.

    If you want to help the homeless and not swindled, donate to a charity that specializes in homeless issues. You’ll sleep better knowing that your money didn’t go for a pint of booze.

    Call me cruel and heartless, but again, I never pan handled when I was in a shelter, so pan handling is neither a ‘right’ or ‘required’ for anyone, sheltered or not.