CLEVELAND—The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a lawsuit today in federal court, challenging two Cleveland city ordinances that criminalize panhandling. The ACLU argues that the ordinances unconstitutionally burden free speech because they target individual speech that asks for money and for help.
One of the ordinances bans standing near roads and asking for money from passing traffic. The other makes it a misdemeanor to panhandle on public streets and sidewalks within 10-20 feet of a wide range of locations including bus stops, valet zones, and the entrances to buildings and parking lots.
“Do we really want the government to decide what people are and are not allowed to talk about?” asked Joe Mead, volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Ohio. “The First Amendment means that cities cannot ban speech simply because people would rather not hear the message. Yet that is precisely what Cleveland’s ordinances do. They single out and punish panhandlers who ask for money, but do not punish any other type of speech.”
Federal courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have continuously upheld panhandling as constitutionally-protected speech. The ACLU of Ohio successfully defeated a similar ordinance in Akron last year, and many other Ohio cities have voluntarily repealed these unconstitutional laws.
“In addition to being unconstitutional, anti-panhandling ordinances are bad public policy,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio. “Homelessness and poverty are distressing issues, and being confronted with them can make us feel uncomfortable. But criminalizing poverty—especially by ticketing or jailing individuals in violation of the First Amendment—is not a solution.”
Press Release from ACLU