What’s your sign?

Lim­its on pan­han­dling lead to fed­eral law­suit

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

It can be said with some ve­rac­ity that no­body re­ally wins when a dis­pute ends up in court. Costs can be high and the time it takes to reach a con­clu­sion shifts from a slow pace to a glacial one.

But our courts are there for good rea­son, not the least of which is their role as a third, co-equal branch of gov­ern­ment de­signed to pro­vide checks and bal­ances on the law­mak­ers (Congress, leg­is­la­tures, city coun­cils, etc.) and those with the re­spon­si­bil­ity to carry out laws (the pres­i­dent, gov­er­nors, may­ors, etc.)

The cities of Rog- ers, Fort Smith and Hot Springs last week be­came de­fen­dants in a law­suit by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union over con­cerns about the cities’ en­force­ment of anti-pan­han­dling or­di­nances.

Two years ago last month, the U.S. Supreme Court con­cluded the mu­nic­i­pal sign or­di­nance in Gilbert, Ariz., went too far. At the time, few but the most as­tute le­gal ob­servers could have pre­dicted the de­ci­sion would un­leash pla­toons of im­pov­er­ished peo­ple, some of them home­less, to beg for money on street cor­ners in com­mu­ni­ties across the na­tion.

The Ari­zona town’s sign or­di­nance pre­vented a church that met in one lo­ca­tion one week and a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion the next from plac­ing tem­po­rary, di­rec­tional signs guid­ing peo­ple to its ser­vices. The town’s reg­u­la­tion of such signs, the High Court ruled, went too far and vi­o­lated Amer­i­cans’ First Amend­ment pro­tec­tions of free speech. In sub­se­quent rul­ings, how­ever, ap­pli­ca­tion of this new in­ter­pre­ta­tion broad­ened to in­clude other speech. And pan­han­dling gained fur­ther le­gal pro­tec­tion as a form of speech.

Flash­ing a sign that asks passersby to give money, the courts say, is just as pro­tected un­der the First Amend­ment as hold­ing a sign that asks peo­ple to vote for a cer­tain can­di­date or to op­pose the Se­nate’s health care bill.

In Fort Smith, re­stric­tions that keep pan­han­dlers away from in­ter­sec­tions and other lo­ca­tions are il­le­gal, the ACLU claims. In Rogers, an or­di­nance pro­hibits pedes­tri­ans from so­lic­it­ing from peo­ple in cars with­out a per­mit is­sued by the po­lice chief.

One has to won­der if that’s en­forced as strongly with a poster-hold­ing lo­cal youth group run­ning a fundraiser car wash as it is when a home­less per­son fash­ions card­board into a sign ask­ing for a few dol­lars.

In Hot Springs, it’s a crime to en­ter a road­way, me­dian or other por­tion of a public street or to oth­er­wise ap­proach a ve­hi­cle on a public street to so­licit.

Some cities proac­tively changed their sign or­di­nances and pan­han­dling lim­its in the wake of the Supreme Court de­ci­sions. Oth­ers may have fig­ured they’d keep their pro­hi­bi­tions un­less and un­til some­one raised an is­sue.

City lead­ers in Rogers learned of the law­suit in a City Coun­cil meet­ing last Tues­day, prompt­ing the city’s staff at­tor­ney and Mayor Greg Hines to lament the lack of any di­a­logue be­fore the lit­i­ga­tion.

We typ­i­cally rec­om­mend peo­ple go through es­tab­lished chan­nels to seek re­dress of their griev­ances. Some­times, when an irked res­i­dent writes a nasty let­ter to the ed­i­tor about how a gov­ern­ment of­fice or a busi­ness has han­dled a sit­u­a­tion, the first ques­tion is “Have you con­tacted them to dis­cuss it?” A let­ter to the ed­i­tor about it isn’t al­ways the best open­ing salvo if one is in search of a so­lu­tion.

But it’s en­tirely understandable that some­one who is poor or home­less might stand lit­tle chance of ush­er­ing through changes in mu­nic­i­pal law. It’s hard to fight city hall when you’re not sure where your next meal is com­ing from.

Hines lam­basted the law­suit as “typ­i­cal ACLU ac­tion” and said the or­ga­ni­za­tion isn’t in­ter­ested in solv­ing prob­lems.

Such at­ti­tudes may have some­thing to do with why pan­han­dlers and the ACLU didn’t be­lieve the at­mos­phere for a ben­e­fi­cial res­o­lu­tion to their con­cerns was good in Rogers.

It’s a stretch to sug­gest any city en­forc­ing strong pro­hi­bi­tions against pan­han­dlers should be shocked that a civil lib­er­ties or­ga­ni­za­tion would sue them in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court rul­ings. Hines’ frus­tra­tion is understandable — no­body wants to be sued — but his re­sponse also sug­gests there was lit­tle hope for changes sig­nif­i­cant enough to sat­isfy lit­i­gants who be­lieve a fun­da­men­tal right guar­an­teed un­der the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion is be­ing stomped on.

Is the ACLU show­boat­ing? It wouldn’t be a sur­prise. But just be­cause they started by fil­ing a law­suit doesn’t mean cities like Rogers, Fort Smith and Hot Springs can’t take a good, hard look at their or­di­nances and make the ad­just­ments their sharpest le­gal minds be­lieve are de­fen­si­ble in and out of court.

An­other city in North­west Arkansas, Fayet­teville, proac­tively changed its sign or­di­nances last De­cem­ber be­cause its city at­tor­ney saw what was com­ing.

Was it enough? Who knows? But so far, Fayet­teville hasn’t been named in any law­suits.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.