ACLU Tells Richmond Officials to Drop Proposal Prohibiting Panhandling of Vehicle Occupants

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
January 13, 2009 12:00 am

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Proposed measure is unconstitutional and could be challenged in court by ACLU

Richmond, VA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today asked the Public Safety Committee of Richmond City Council to abandon attempts to pass an ordinance that would prohibit panhandlers on sidewalks or curbs from soliciting vehicle occupants.

In a letter and legal memo emailed and faxed earlier today, the ACLU says the proposal violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment and that the civil liberties organization is prepared to offer legal representation to panhandlers affected by the ordinance, should it be approved by the Public Safety Committee and passed by City Council in its current form.

“Panhandling is protected speech that is not much different from asking someone to support your political candidate or join your religion,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Indeed, some courts have held that panhandling makes an important social statement about the presence of poverty in our society.”

The Public Safety Committee is scheduled to meet tomorrow afternoon to discuss proposed Richmond Ordinance 2008-195. In 2007, Richmond City Council considered but rejected a similar ordinance that would have required a $25 permit to panhandle vehicle occupants.

“Richmond can prevent drivers from making illegal and unsafe stops, and it can penalize pedestrians who illegally walk into traffic for any reason,” said Willis. “But it cannot pass an ordinance that prohibits individuals from asking for donations from sidewalks and then collecting those donations in ways that do not interfere with the safe flow of traffic.”

As proposed, the ordinance reads: “It shall be unlawful for any person to solicit, by spoken word, written sign or gesture, contributions of any nature from the drivers of motor vehicles or passengers therein. Any person violating this section shall be guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.”

Willis’s request and a legal memo from ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg were emailed to members of the Public Safety Committee earlier today. A copy of the letter and legal memo are available online at:

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