Man Sues City, Says Ban on Begging Violates the First Amendment

Interesting. Why are the homeless not allowed to ask for donations while firefighters can "pass the boot?"

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A Rhode Island mans claims he used to beg at an intersection until police cited him for violating a city ordinance. He claims that’s a violation of his First Amendment rights.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is representing Michael Monteiro and claim this is the first of many lawsuits they plan over laws they say target the poor. They claim that the homeless are not allowed to ask for donations while firefighters can “pass the boot” without being molested.

This isn’t the first time such a lawsuit has been filed. In 2013, beggars in Springfield, Ill. said the city’s ban was a violation of their freedom of speech.

“The City has openly expressed hostility towards panhandlers and a desire to rid the downtown historic district of their presence,” the lawsuit said.

Believe it or not, courts have struck down bans on begging before, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, in Michigan, Arizona, California and Utah.

In a March 15 order, U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart in Salt Lake City granted the plaintiffs’ motion seeking to order agencies statewide to stop enforcing the law.

Earlier in the week, state attorneys argued the panhandling prohibition addressed traffic and public safety concerns. But Stewart found Utah’s law is too sweeping and infringes on constitutionally protected rights.

Barnard says if officers now enforce the law, they can be sued.

So is this a case of violating First Amendment rights?

In 1990, Alan Dershowitz wrote about a case before a New York judge who said that’s exactly what bans on begging does:

U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand agreed with the beggars: The simple request for money by a beggar or panhandler cannot but remind the passerby that many people in the city live in poverty and often lack the essentials for survival. Even the beggar sitting in Grand Central Station with a tin cup at his feet conveys the message that he and others like him are in need.

While often disturbing and sometimes alarmingly graphic, begging is unmistakably informative and persuasive speech.

Judge Sand cited U.S. Supreme Court cases concluding that organized charities that solicit for others do have a First Amendment right to send their message. He reasoned that no constitutional distinction can be drawn between the more refined entreaties of the professional fund-raiser and the “more personal, emotionally charged” face-to-face importuning of the subway beggar.

The New York Times reports that a similar verdict was handed down by federal judge Robert W. Sweet in 1992 and the Life of the Law blog quotes law professor Bill Quigley, who describes begging in a different way.

“The right of a person to essentially say, ‘Look, I am the victim of economic injustice. No one would say that’s not political.’ If they said, ‘I am the consequence of economic dislocation or the information age and globalization, that would be a political statement. But most people are, like, ‘look, I just need some money.’”

It’s an interesting discussion, regardless of where you come down on it. If it’s public property, why shouldn’t a person be allowed to ask another person if they’re willing to hand over some of their property? No force is being used. No one’s rights are being violated.

Why does there need to be a law?

Shop owners would say, rightfully so, that a line of beggars outside their shops is bad for business. There should be a law that keeps them away in order to protect their business’s bottom line.

But since the sidewalk is considered public property, often it’s considered unConstitutional to prohibit begging.

Simple solution — sell the sidewalk to private owners. The business owners would then be able to remove people when they feel they need to go.

What do you think? Is begging a right? Is the ban on it a violation of the First Amendment?  Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Photo Credit: awrangler/123rf


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