For more than two decades, California cities have gone to court to settle tensions between residents and day laborers who solicit work from public sidewalks. The issue is now before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
This particular case involves a 1989 Redondo Beach ordinance that bans individuals from standing on streets, sidewalks, curbs, alleys, highways or medians to solicit or attempt to solicit employment, business or contributions from drivers. At the same time, it prohibits motorists from stopping in traffic or parking to hire someone. Federal courts across the country have repeatedly tossed out similar measures, cautioning that attempts to restrict what people say on a public sidewalk — even if what they're saying is simply that they need a job — intrudes on the fundamental right to free expression.
The Redondo Beach measure is the exception. In 2006, a federal District Court ruled the ordinance invalid because it was too broad, but a three-judge panel of the court of appeals reversed that decision and upheld the law. Now the full 9th Circuit will decide its fate.
City officials say the ordinance doesn't regulate free speech but rather the conduct of day laborers, who mill about on sidewalks, snarling traffic and creating public safety problems. They argue that their measure replicates a Phoenix law that withstood legal scrutiny. That law barred members of the political action group ACORN from running into stopped traffic to solicit donations.
This measure is different, however, in that it seeks to apply the same rules to sidewalks. Redondo Beach officials have the right — indeed, they have the obligation — to respond to public safety concerns, but the current rule doesn't provide a real fix to a real problem. Police already have the authority to ticket jaywalkers or cite drivers who violate traffic laws.
We agree with the lower court that the ordinance regulates speech rather than conduct. Consider this: A member of the Redondo Beach City Council standing on the sidewalk, waving at drivers and soliciting support for his or her reelection, would be behaving legally under the ordinance. But if a person engages in the same behavior on the same sidewalk in an effort to get a job, the behavior is illegal. That's inappropriate; the law should be the same for both.
Redondo Beach, and cities like it, should consider using the myriad laws already available to ensure that the public is safe and that everyone's right to free speech is protected. Ordinances that attempt specifically to remove what many residents consider unsightly gatherings of poor men looking for a day's work are not only clumsy but ill-conceived.