Many courts have ruled peaceful panhandling is protected under the First Amendment, and selective enforcement has targeted the poor and homeless.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit today in federal court in Worcester on behalf of three Worcester residents to block two anti-panhandling laws enacted by the City of Worcester, claiming the laws are unconstitutional and violate the right to peacefully solicit donations in public and to engage the public in political and other speech.
"The laws are intended to prevent so-called 'aggressive' begging, but in fact prohibit a great deal of peaceful conduct which is protected expression," said Kevin Martin, a volunteer attorney from the law firm Goodwin Procter LLP, which is handling the case for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
One of the new anti-begging laws prevents people from doing such things as holding a sign asking for help starting a half-hour before sunset, or performing music while having a hat or cup for donations, or soliciting donations for any cause if they are within 20 feet of the entrance to a bus stop, theater, ATM machine, or any other "place of public assembly."
"Numerous courts throughout the country have ruled that peaceful panhandling is protected expression under the First Amendment," said Martin. "Whatever legitimate concerns exist concerning truly criminal conduct by a few individuals can be addressed using existing laws."
The second law prohibits standing on traffic islands, a location favored for years by people soliciting donations and engaging in protected speech, including many Worcester-area politicians and their supporters, various churches, the Salvation Army, and firefighter organizations raising funds for charity.
The lawsuit contends that this law too is not justified by any safety concerns significant enough to override the constitutional protection for expression.
In addition to raising First Amendment claims, the lawsuit says that the City is violating the right to equal protection of the laws, by enforcing the two laws only against the homeless and other poor people who seek help for themselves.
"When these laws were being considered, the City Solicitor suggested police would ignore violations by politicians and focus enforcement on those begging," said Chris Robarge, a Worcester-based organizer with the ACLU of Massachusetts. "And since the laws were enacted, the police have ignored traffic median protesters who were acting in violation of the law, yet they have arrested homeless people who did the same thing."
For more about the lawsuit, see Thayer v. City of Worcester.