Sunday, December 22, 2013
BY GILLIAN GRAHAM
Portland Press Herald
A lawsuit against Portland's new ban on panhandling on traffic medians has put the city on the front line of a legal debate about constitutional free-speech rights that is spreading around the country as a growing number of communities restrict when and where people can ask for money.
Many bans similar to Portland's have yet to be challenged in court, and the local case could set a precedent for other Maine communities. In Michigan, a federal court struck down a more sweeping state law that prohibited begging in public places, ruling that it violated free-speech rights. In Massachusetts, a pending lawsuit challenges a more narrow Worcester law that limits when and where people can panhandle.
Portland's new rules, which took effect in August, prohibit panhandling, loitering and other activities on street medians.
City officials and supporters of the ordinance say the limit is needed to protect the safety of the growing number of pandhandlers, as well as motorists. Mayor Michael Brennan defended the ordinance this week, saying it led to a decline in the number of people standing in traffic medians, and so far it hasn't required city police to issue citations or arrest anyone.
Along with free-speech complaints, opponents argue that the limit unfairly targets people who are poor or homeless as a way to keep poverty out of sight.
Three Portland residents -- a woman who panhandles and two men who engage in political demonstrations -- filed a motion Tuesday in U.S. District Court seeking to prevent the city from enforcing the ordinance. In the motion, Zachary Heiden, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and Kevin Martin, an attorney with Boston-based Goodwin Procter, argue that the ban is unconstitutional because it hinders free speech, both for panhandlers and anyone who might use those public spaces for political statements or similar activities.
The case's outcome could affect other Maine communities directly.
Lewiston also recently approved a ban on standing in median strips. Despite the Portland lawsuit, the Biddeford City Council is expected to move forward with a plan to prohibit any activity -- including panhandling -- in traffic medians.
"We're not abridging free speech. You can stand on the sidewalk; you can stand in areas that are safe and say whatever you want to say," City Manager John Bubier said Wednesday. "What we're saying, and what Portland has said, is there are places that are patently unsafe to stay."
The Biddeford council will take a final vote on the ban on Oct. 1. As in Portland, Biddeford's proposal follows reports of an influx of panhandlers who stand in the city's busiest intersections, according to city officials.
Maine communities are not alone in looking at panhandling bans.
The ACLU, on behalf of three residents, is suing the city of Worcester, Mass., claiming its laws violate the right to solicit donations peacefully in public and engage in political speech. The city's anti-begging laws prohibit people from holding signs asking for help during certain hours and in certain places and make it illegal to stand on traffic islands.
In 2012, a federal judge ruled that a Michigan state law banning begging in public places violated First Amendment protections of free speech and the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause. The civil lawsuit was brought by two men who were arrested for holding signs asking for help and spare change.
The ruling in Michigan is not considered a direct threat to Portland's ordinance because that state's laws were much broader and specifically targeted people asking for money.
"We really are seeing a trend of legislation of this nature in communities across the country," said Jeremy Rosen, policy director for the Washington D.C.-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
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