ACLU Puts Municipalities on Notice: Laws Banning Peaceful Panhandling Are Unconstitutional

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
October 29, 2013 12:00 am

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DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today sent letters to 84 municipalities across the state notifying them that anti-begging ordinances on their books are unconstitutional and should be repealed. The ordinances are nearly identical to the Michigan law struck down in August by the Court of Appeals for unconstitutionally preventing peaceful panhandling in all public places.

“Anti-begging laws that punish that most vulnerable segment of our society are not only harsh, they are unconstitutional,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “No one should be thrown in jail or subjected to a fine for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change. In the wake of the appeals court decision, we’re putting these cities and townships on notice that it’s time they repeal their unconstitutional ordinances. Our municipalities cannot and should not use the force of law to silence the voices of innocent people who rely on charity to survive.”

The letters are a result of a comprehensive review of anti-begging ordinances across the state conducted by the ACLU of Michigan. While the exact language of the ordinances at issue varies, they each prohibit peaceful panhandling in all public places.

In 2011, the ACLU of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two Grand Rapids residents who had been repeatedly arrested or ticketed by police for violating the state’s ban on begging. One year later, Judge Robert J. Jonker of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan ruled that the state’s ban on panhandling was an unconstitutional infringement on their free speech.

After Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appealed that ruling, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the lower court’s decision.

While it is true that courts have upheld “aggressive begging” ordinances that are narrowly tailored to protect the public from actual harm and still allow peaceful panhandling in public places, the cities and townships receiving letters from the ACLU of Michigan fall short of that requirement.

As noted in the letters sent by the ACLU, Judge Jonker specifically ruled that: “Nothing prohibits the government from regulating directly the conduct the government identifies as problematic. The government can and does prohibit fraud, assault, and trespass. But what the government cannot do without violating the First Amendment is categorically prohibit the speech and expressive elements that may sometimes be associated with the harmful conduct; it must protect the speech and expression, and focus narrowly and directly on the conduct it seeks to prohibit.”

In 2011, the ACLU of Michigan sent a similar letter to the City of Royal Oak indicating that the city’s broadly worded ordinance prohibiting peaceful panhandling on public sidewalks was unconstitutional. In response, Royal Oak repealed the ordinance and replaced it with one that only prohibited what it clearly defined as “aggressive panhandling.”

Key News and Documents:

Watch “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Challenging Michigan’s Anti-Begging Ordinance”

Read the Sixth Circuit’s opinion striking down the state’s anti-begging law

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