October 12, 2016 1:45 pm

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today sharply criticized as “troubling and constitutionally problematic” a proposed anti-panhandling ordinance being heard tomorrow by the Cranston City Council’s Ordinance Committee. The proposal comes just six months after the ACLU successfully challenged a similar Cranston ordinance that banned “solicitation on roadways.”

The new proposal would ban a person from entering or standing in a roadway or median for the purpose of distributing anything to, or receiving anything from, the occupant of a motor vehicle. The Cranston ordinance declared unconstitutional earlier this year banned people from distributing literature to, requesting donations from, or otherwise soliciting motor vehicle occupants. Noting in a letter sent to the City Council yesterday that “the new proposal seeks to prohibit even more First Amendment activity than the City’s current unconstitutional ordinance,” ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown argued that it “hardly solves the free speech problems that were inherent in the ordinance prompting our previous legal challenge.” The ACLU’s letter cites a federal appeals court decision from Boston last year that struck down a similarly broad ban on free speech activities on roadway medians.

In addition to raising legal concerns, the ACLU’s letter argued that the proposal, based on one being considered in Providence, was “a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine the right of poor people to engage in panhandling,” and that rather “than addressing the problems that have forced people to engage in panhandling in the first place, this proposal instead seeks to punish them for their poverty.”

The ACLU further pointed out that, assuming that the ordinance is not selectively enforced against panhandlers, it would “make illegal a wide swath of First Amendment activity that has gone on for decades without serious incident, harming the free speech rights of many people, not just panhandlers.” The ACLU said the proposal would, among other things, “bar firefighters from continuing to engage in their long-standing charitable ‘Fill the Boot’ campaigns. It would prohibit school teams, cheerleaders and non-profit groups from making use of this long-recognized method of obtaining needed financial support, something such groups have done for years in Cranston. It would similarly impose significant restrictions on the First Amendment rights of organized labor engaged in peaceful picketing activities.”

In a consent judgment entered in federal court last April declaring the “roadway solicitation” ban unconstitutional, the City agreed to notify all police officers of the judgment and their obligation to refrain from enforcing the ordinance, and to pay attorneys’ fees and damages to plaintiff Michael Monteiro for the violation of his rights. The ACLU’s Brown said the organization was likely to legally challenge this latest ordinance if ultimately approved by the City Council.

A copy of the ACLU’s letter to the City Council can be found online here:

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