CHICAGO – A U.S. Supreme Court decision that let an Arizona pastor put up signs directing people to church services has frustrated cities’ attempts to control swelling numbers of panhandlers.
Lower courts across the nation have used the case as the basis for broader First Amendment protections, overturning anti-begging ordinances on the grounds that the government generally can’t outlaw speech on particular subjects. The protection for panhandling comes as cities grapple with the effects of homelessness and the postrecession challenge of promoting development and tourism in struggling downtowns.
Bans in Worcester and Lowell, Mass., have been overturned, as have others in Portland, Maine, and Grand Junction, Colo. Similar ordinances are being challenged in New Hampshire, Oklahoma and other states and municipalities including Providence, R.I., and — just last week — Crystal Lake, Ill., elected not to enforce its laws.
“What we’re seeing over and over again is overreaching,” said Ken Paulson, president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “You cannot declare a downtown zone a no-free speech zone. You cannot ban free speech, and so-called panhandling is free speech.”
Springfield, Ill., the hometown of President Abraham Lincoln and the site where then-U. S. Sen. Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy in 2007, saw its ban tossed out by a federal judge just weeks after the high court’s ruling. The ordinance prohibited verbal requests for a financial donation. The Supreme Court turned away an appeal in February to reinstate the ban in the city’s historic district. “We won the thing, and they just don’t like it,” said Don Norton, a plaintiff who’s been begging in Springfield for eight years.
But some merchants say aggressive panhandlers discourage visitors and hurt business. “I don’t call it panhandling. I call it harassment. It’s a public safety issue,” said Garret Moffatt, who leads daily tours of the area dressed as Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s friend and personal bodyguard
The Supreme Court decision invalidated a Gilbert, Ariz., law that had put strict time limits on signs providing directions. The ordinance hindered a small church seeking to direct people to its Sunday services.
Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said the law was “content-based” because it treated directional signs differently from other displays, such as those for political candidates. Under previous Supreme Court rulings, content-based restrictions are valid only if they are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.
Lower courts have taken Thomas’ reasoning to mean that anti-panhandling ordinances are content-based as well.