Panhandling suit’s court date set
U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson on Wednesday scheduled a hearing for Sept. 5 on the validity of a newly written state panhandling law.
Wilson will hear arguments beginning at 9:30 a.m. from attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which is seeking a preliminary injunction to block the law’s enforcement, and the Arkansas attorney general’s office, which is defending the law.
In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, the ACLU said the law that took effect earlier this month isn’t an improvement on an earlier one that Wilson threw out as unconstitutional in November.
The new version, Act 847 of 2017, amends Section (a)(3) of Arkansas Code Annotated 5-71-213 to provide specific definitions of “public place” and “begging.” The old section, which had been on the books for more than 30 years, made it illegal for a person to “linger or remain in a public place, or on the premises of another, for the purpose of begging.”
The new wording applies to anyone who “lingers or remains on a sidewalk, roadway, or public right-of-way, in a public parking lot or public transportation vehicle or facility, or on private property, for the purpose of asking for anything as a charity or a gift: (a) in a harassing or threatening manner; (b) in a way likely to cause alarm to the other person; or (c) under circumstances that create a traffic hazard or impediment.”
The lawsuit alleges that “on its face, the new statute discriminates against one type of speech” by limiting the law’s application to anyone standing or remaining “for the purpose of asking for anything as a gift.”
The ACLU pointed out that it is legal to linger for the purpose of soliciting a vote, attending a meeting, joining an organization or eating at a particular restaurant.
Under a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision, any law that regulates speech on the basis of its content violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution unless it is narrowly tailored to promote a compelling government interest.
Wilson said in November that by banning begging in all places, at all times, by all people, in all ways, Arkansas’ anti-begging law infringed on the freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment.
The ACLU also contends that the new wording fails to define asking for charity “in harassing or threatening manner” or “in a way likely to cause alarm,” which it says doesn’t give anyone fair notice of what constitutes punishable conduct.
On Wednesday, Wilson ordered the attorney general’s office to respond to the preliminary injunction request by the close of business Aug. 25.
So far, a spokesman for the office has said only that Attorney General Leslie Rutledge will review the lawsuit “and intends to fully defend” the new version of the law.