Sunday, March 03, 2013

Does Free Speech Protect the Right to Panhandle?

 Earlier this month a state lawmaker in Georgia renewed his call for legislation making it a crime to alter a photo in a manner that “causes an unknowing person wrongfully to be identified as the person in an obscene depiction.” (Some wiseacre had Photoshopped his head over a porn star’s body.) Asked whether this might raise any constitutional issues, the lawmaker Smith — whose first name, appropriately, is Earnest— solemnly declared, “No one has a right to make fun of anyone. It’s not a First Amendment right.”

Smith’s comments are funny, but restrictions on panhandling are not. And they are especially unfunny in Charlottesville, Va., a city sometimes referred to as “the People’s Republic of” because of its liberal (for Virginia) leanings. Charlottesville is home to UVa, the university founded by Thomas Jefferson (who was no fan of the Sedition Act). It is also home to the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. And it is home to the Downtown Mall — a quaint run of shops and cafes where you are not allowed to ask people for money within 50 feet of two cross-streets.

Five homeless gents took objection to that ordinance and, with the help of the ACLU, filed suit against it. A lower court sided with city, but last week a three-judge panel on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and sent the case back for further review.

Charlottesville is just the latest in a long line of burgs from Medford, Ore., to Macon, Ga., that have tried to bring the hammer down on panhandlers.

Courts have struck down panhandling ordinances time and again. In 2011, an Arizona appeals court ruled that Phoenix could not ban panhandling after dark. Last March, a federal judge ruled against Utah’s anti-panhandling law. In August, a federal judge ruled against Michigan’s state law against panhandling in public places. Time and again the courts have found, as the 4th Circuit did last week, that “begging constitutes protected speech.” But cities across the country keep passing anti-panhandling ordinances anyway.

And we all know why: The homeless are dirty and smelly and not the sort of folks the local Convention and Visitors’ Bureau would put on a brochure.



Anonymous said...

What, if any, is the difference between panhandling and harassment?

Anonymous said...

Or indeed intimidation, as refusal might lead to aggressive behavior by the beggar.

Malcolm Smith said...

May I humbly suggest that these court decisions are out of touch with reality? Freedom of speech refers predominantly to expressing opinions and providing information - two things essential for a working democracy. Begging hardly comes into that category.
Next, I suppose, they will rule there is a constitutional right to say, "Would you like to buy some heroin?"

Anonymous said...

Of course panhandling is allowed by the courts. If you ban that then you will have to ban political begging, not that it would be a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

A vote for Obama was panhandling, asking for more free stuff by the takers. the rest of us have to pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Asking for charity/donations/hand-outs is, of course, expression.
Acting in an agressive or intimidatory manner is another thing.
Banning the first is unconstitutional. Banning the second is a perfectly acceptable limit on speech.
These anti-hobo laws are simply too broad.
As for 'would you like to buy heroin?' - my understanding is it is not illegal to ask the question, but it is to supply the product.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the city needs to approach this as regulating comerce within city limits since there is money changing hands and require a $200 permit. This would effectively give officers authority to stop them.