Wisconsin ACLU defends panhandling as free speech
Brother, can you spare a tweet?
Sister, can you share a text?
Leaders in the national Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign to repeal bans on panhandling — including eight prohibitions in Wisconsin — are encouraging grassroots activism.
They want people to oppose panhandling bans in letters to local governments, as well as on social media, spreading these messages:
Everyone has the right to ask for help. Panhandling bans are costly. Panhandling bans do not work. Panhandling bans are unconstitutional. Cities should invest in housing and services, not citations or detentions.
“People panhandle when they lack other options,” said Tim Muth, staff attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Most of the time, people resort to panhandling because they need to feed themselves, to pay the rent, or get bus fare.”
Most social service organizations don’t agree. They say panhandling fails to address poverty.
Still, the ACLU of Wisconsin has joined with other groups to advance the initiative through legal channels. On Aug. 28, the state ACLU sent letters demanding repeal to officials in eight Wisconsin municipalities: Altoona, Glendale, Mequon, Racine, Superior, Shorewood, Waukesha and Wauwatosa.
“These Wisconsin communities that have criminalized the act of begging add insult to the injuries that those in poverty have often experienced,” said Chris Ott, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “These cities should take these unconstitutional laws off the books and instead look for more constructive ways to address the needs of our fellow citizens experiencing homelessness and poverty.”
The ACLU of Wisconsin, with its demand letters, joined 18 other organizations in targeting more than 240 ordinances.
“No one wants to see poor people have to beg for money,” Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, stated in a news release. “But until all their basic needs — food, health care and housing — are met, they have the right to ask for help.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 ruled in Reed v. Town of Gilbert that if an ordinance regulates speech differently based on its content it is subject to the strictest level of review and not likely to be determined constitutional. An example used in arguments against panhandling ordinances is this: How is asking someone on the street for a donation illegal but asking for directions is allowed?
Since the 2015 ruling, anti-panhandling ordinances have fallen in all 25 legal challenges in the United States.
Also, at least 31 cities have repealed ordinances with language similar to the municipal bans in Wisconsin.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the National Coalition for the Homeless and more than 100 other organizations launched the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign in 2016 to emphasize that criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness.
“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness.”
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For more, go to housingnothandcuffs.org.