What’s your sign?
Limits on panhandling lead to federal lawsuit
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.