A 2011 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found… (Los Angeles Times )
A war is being waged over panhandling, as cities and states pass tighter and tighter anti-solicitation laws to control transients and deal with chronic homelessness. A 2011 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that more than 100 cities had some kind of restriction on panhandling; 16 of those were in California.
Along with the bans on begging have come fierce constitutional challenges. Last week, a federal judge in Arizona was the latest to weigh in, ruling that the state's law making it a crime to beg for money or food was an infringement of the constitutional right to free speech. The case involved a 77-year-old woman who was arrested in Flagstaff after she asked an undercover police officer for bus fare. The judge's ruling follows similar legal decisions in Utah, Michigan and elsewhere.
It is understandable that city residents and their elected officials are upset by visible reminders of poverty and are frustrated by decades of failed efforts to combat homelessness. But it is not acceptable to pass sweeping legislation criminalizing the behavior of individuals who are engaged in peaceful pleas for money or help.
As other judges have noted, including one in Humboldt County who last year struck down a controversial Arcata city ordinance that banned nonaggressive begging, panhandling is a form of speech protected by the 1st Amendment. Officials may not restrict it merely because it makes passersby uncomfortable.
Of course, there is some behavior that should not be tolerated. When asking for money becomes intimidation, speech drifts into conduct, and lawmakers have a right to rein it in. Lawmakers may legitimately take steps against "aggressive" panhandlers who touch, block or threaten the people they're begging from, or ask repeatedly for money, or use abusive language.
But the Arizona statute was overbroad because it targeted peaceful begging as well.
Arizona officials have agreed not to contest the ruling, and they will no longer interfere with peaceful panhandlers. Other cities and counties across the country should take note that such laws go too far. Rather than trying to remove unsightly panhandlers from public view, officials should redouble their efforts to move individuals out of poverty and off the streets.