Panhandling As Free Speech

After the Northern California city of Arcata passed an ordinance banning panhandling in 2010, a local resident, Richard Salzman, sued in State Superior Court in Humboldt County.

Mr. Salzman, 53, an agent for commercial illustrators, said he had no problem with Arcata’s efforts to curb aggressive panhandling. But he objected to the city — long known for its liberal leanings — also prohibiting panhandling that was not necessarily threatening on its face, like merely asking for money within 20 feet of the entrance to a store or restaurant.

“I don’t know how much more passive you can be than standing there silently holding a sign,” he said. “This is a slippery slope we don’t want to go down.”

Last month, Judge Dale A. Reinholtsen ruled that Arcata’s law was indeed too broad and struck down most provisions that prohibited all panhandling in specific locations.

When I was in college, there was a rumor that the reason there were no homeless people in the wealthy city of Irvine was because the local police picked up homeless people in the middle of the night and dropped them off in neighboring cities. Shelter workers from neighboring cities said the rumors were exaggerated, but not entirely untrue—Irvine didn’t have shelters for the homeless, so when homeless people are found, they are taken to cities that have them.

Homeless people and advocates are suing cities for instituting panhandling bans, arguing that they violate the First Amendment, and don’t do anything to help besides shuffle homeless people away from cities. As one of our readers points out, if corporations giving money to Super PACs is protected free speech, so should homeless people holding signs asking for money. The courts appear to agree. (Thanks, Jon!)

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