Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia)

Revenge of the panhandler­s

A Supreme Court move bolsters the rights of panhandler­s “You cannot declare a downtown zone a no-free-speech zone”

- Tim Jones, with Greg Stohr

Don Norton and his wife, Karen Otterson, have been arrested about 50 times while panhandlin­g in downtown Springfiel­d, Ill., over the past eight years. In 2013 they sued Springfiel­d for infringing on their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. The city had passed an ordinance prohibitin­g verbal requests for money in the city’s historic district, just a short walk from Abraham Lincoln’s home, tomb, and presidenti­al library. A federal appeals court took Norton and Otterson’s

side and overturned the ban, and in February the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the city’s appeal. “I kind of feel privileged that I was able to help people have the right to do this,” says Norton, 55, who carries a cardboard sign asking for help.

His victory came thanks to a 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court in which the justices agreed with the arguments of Arizona pastor Clyde Reed, who wanted to put up signs directing people to Sunday services at his church. He challenged a local ordinance that put strict time limits on signs providing directions. Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said the law treated directiona­l signs differentl­y from other displays, such as those for political candidates. Under previous Supreme Court rulings, restrictio­ns on specific types of speech were considered valid only if they were narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.

Lower courts have taken Thomas’s reasoning to mean that anti-panhandlin­g ordinances unfairly suppress certain kinds of speech. They’ve overturned anti-begging ordinances as well as others outlawing ballot-box selfies and robocalls for political campaigns. “Any law distinguis­hing one kind of speech from another by reference to its meaning now requires a compelling justificat­ion,” Frank Easterbroo­k, a federal appeals court judge, wrote in the Springfiel­d case.

Bans in Worcester and Lowell, Mass., have been overturned by lower courts, as have others in Grand Junction, Colo., and Portland, Maine. Similar ordinances are being challenged in New Hampshire and Oklahoma. Other states and municipali­ties have since decided not to enforce their laws because the Supreme Court refused to hear Springfiel­d’s appeal. “You cannot declare a downtown zone a no-free-speech zone,” says Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “You cannot ban free speech, and so-called panhandlin­g is free speech.”

Advocates for the poor say anti-begging ordinances criminaliz­e poverty and overlook the root problems of mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessne­ss that can lead to panhandlin­g. “The answer is not to deploy the criminal justice system to arrest people but to assure there are sufficient resources to resolve the problem,” says Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit National Law Center on Homelessne­ss & Poverty, which advocates for policies that prevent and reduce homelessne­ss.

The popularity of panhandlin­g bans jumped at the beginning of the decade. The number of cities with blanket bans increased 25 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to a 2015 report from the Law Center. Springfiel­d enacted its ordinance in 2007. Steven Rahn, Springfiel­d’s attorney, says the city was simply trying to protect merchants’ economic interests. “We don’t think the Supreme Court ever intended to go with quite that broad of a ruling,” he says.

“Merchants would like there to be a respectful coexistenc­e,” says Lisa Clemmons Stott, executive director of Downtown Springfiel­d, a nonprofit that promotes cultural and economic developmen­t. “You can’t have people urinating in doorways and panhandlin­g customers who are eating lunch outside.” Garret Moffett, who leads daily tours of the area dressed as Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s friend and personal bodyguard, agrees: “I don’t call it panhandlin­g. I call it harassment.” Norton agrees that aggressive panhandlin­g poses a nuisance. He seeks donations by holding a sign, not verbally asking for money. Mark Weinberg, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who represente­d Norton and Otterson, says there’s no compelling economic interest that justifies squelching free speech. “What’s going on in Springfiel­d is broadly representa­tive of cities around the country,” he says. “For Girl Scout Cookies, it’s yes. For panhandler­s, it’s no.”

The bottom line Cities that want to crack down on panhandlin­g find courts siding with beggars after the Supreme Court expanded rights to free speech.

 ??  ?? Portland, Maine 16%
Portland, Maine 16%
 ??  ?? Seen, But Not Heard
Homelessne­ss in cities that have enacted panhandlin­g restrictio­ns Lowell, Mass. 21% Increase in homeless population since 2010
Seen, But Not Heard Homelessne­ss in cities that have enacted panhandlin­g restrictio­ns Lowell, Mass. 21% Increase in homeless population since 2010
 ??  ?? Chicago 9%
Chicago 9%

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