Anti-Panhandling Law Ruled Unconstitutional

Commentary

by Donald Whitehead

    Since 1995 homeless advocates, homeless individuals, and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that measures to strengthen a 1992 aggressive panhandling ordinance were unconstitutional in the U. S. District Court. The two ordinances restrict where and when panhandlers can ask for money and ban people from sitting or lying on business district sidewalks between 7a.m. and 11 p.m.

    While advocates for the homeless understand the need for restrictions against those who are aggressive in demands for money, it is common knowledge that most panhandlers are not of the aggressive variety. In addition, while we don’t advocate panhandling in any form, we understand that because of economic conditions along with the lack of affordable housing and many other important factors, people are forced into this behavior. Our resources should be used in providing safe, sanitary, affordable housing and not to prosecute individuals forced into panhandling.

    Steve Stuhlbarg, who with Scott Greenwood represented the panhandlers, said, "We’re delighted. We think this is a rigorous and proper application of the First Amendment principle. These laws were designed to target peaceful and non-coercive, and non-disruptive panhandling. These ordinances were targeted at people who are peaceful. The city doesn’t have the power to intervene in what people say on a public sidewalk." He said in a Cincinnati Post interview. "People have a right to peacefully ask for money. The stated purpose of these laws was to make panhandling disappear."

    Greenwood added, "The ordinances, in flat and total violation of the First Amendment, bans an entire type of speech based on its content from the most sacred area for public speech; the public sidewalk. The Court recognized that the poor and homeless have the same First Amendment rights as business people and corporations.

    Deputy Solicitor Robert Johnstone and Councilman Phil Heimlich, who sponsored the ordinances, said the city will likely appeal the ruling to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Heimlich said that the decision goes against decisions in other cities. However, as usual, Mr. Heimlich has not done his homework. Recently, judges in Atlanta and Miami have also ruled against ordinances that violate the civil rights of homeless individuals.

    The National Coalition For the Homeless continues to monitor these discriminatory laws through the Civil Rights Monitoring Project. Mr. Heimlich’s statement claiming that this ordinance was originated because of safety has no validity. In an unscientific poll done by Streetvibes reporters on 4th street, most people who agreed to talk had little or nothing bad to say about panhandlers except that they were a little annoying at times; not one person even mentioned safety.

    Judge Sherman sighted five reasons why the ordinances fail the constitutionality test. The City did not have specific interest in enacting the ordinances; even if the city did have significant interest, the two ordinances are not tailored to serve that interest; the ordinances are not content neutral; the city restrictions on speech are unreasonable; the ordinances do not leave open alternative means for panhandlers to communicate.

    We hope this ruling finally puts an end to attempts to criminalize those who already suffer the day to day horrors of being poor in this city. We hope that this also puts to rest concerns about this non-existent safety issue so that more attention can be placed on real safety issue’s, such as crumbling school buildings and open air drug trafficking. Finally, if our city leader pay a little more attention to the poor and push for a livable wage instead of giving wealthy tax breaks. (just last week the city voted to stop taxing stock options) there wouldn’t be a need to panhandle.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published July 1998 Cleveland Ohio