Unconstitutional Panhandling Ordinances in Iowa Block Free Speech, Criminalize Poverty

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
August 28, 2018 11:00 am

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Des Moines, Iowa — Today the ACLU of Iowa, as part of an effort coordinated nationally by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, demanded that three Iowa cities repeal their bans on panhandling.

Those cities and towns are Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and Grimes.

These Iowa towns are not alone. Thousands of other cities across the country restrict the right of impoverished people to ask for money in public spaces, whether they do it verbally or with a sign. But a series of court decisions have made it clear: Laws that outlaw panhandling are unconstitutional and wrongly block individuals’ free speech rights and criminalize poverty. As a result, a number of larger cities have begun to repeal these draconian ordinances.

In Des Moines, for example local ordinance Sec. 78-102 makes it a misdemeanor to solicit funds without a license or between 9:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. It’s punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $750.00 for a first offense. But even when police simply tell someone begging to “move along” instead of giving them a citation, they’re actually violating the First Amendment rights of that person, because they are interfering with their right to free speech. Ordinances in the other Iowa cities have similar penalties.

That was the case with Alexis Ostlund, a homeless woman in Des Moines. About a month ago, she said, she was panhandling on a public sidewalk outside a downtown coffee shop. She had a sign that said “Free Hugs” and a bowl for donations. A policeman approached her, “and told me what I was doing was illegal and I had to go. I started to pick up my stuff and fold up my sign, but I wasn’t doing it fast enough for him and he kept saying, ‘C’mon. You need to go.’ ”

Other homeless people report similar experiences, including homeless friends being fined and then jailed. To Ostlund, it makes no sense to penalize poor people for asking for help. “If people are willing to ask, and people are willing to give, it shouldn’t have anything to do with laws and the police.”

Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director, said, “We Iowans don’t like to turn our backs on people who need help. But these ordinances do even worse than nothing, because they penalize poor people simply for asking for help. That’s not just wrong in the moral sense, it is also unconstitutional, because the First Amendment protects the right of people to express their needs and ask for help as free speech. These Iowa cities must take these unconstitutional ordinances off the books and should look for more constructive ways to address the needs of our fellow Iowans experiencing homelessness and poverty.”

The ACLU of Iowa is joining this national campaign as part of a special project to address criminalization of poverty in Iowa, which is also examining how court debt perpetuates downward spirals of poverty.


While it may make people uncomfortable to see impoverished people asking for money, or being asked for money, blocking their ability to ask for help is not a solution.

“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities.”

“No one wants to see poor people have to beg for money,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “But until all their basic needs—food, health care, and housing—are met, they have the right to ask for help.”

An important turning point in panhandling ordinances was the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert. It struck down these types of content-based regulations on free speech as a result, every case since brought against panhandling ordinances—more than 25 to date—has been found unconstitutional. Also, since that landmark decision, at least an additional 31 cities have repealed their ordinances.

Bettis Austen noted that there are other Iowa cities that have unconstitutional ordinances, which were not targeted with a letter: “We encourage all Iowa cities to take a close look at their ordinances to make sure they don’t have bans or permit requirements on panhandling or solicitation—not just those cities we sent letters to. These cities identified today represent only an initial review of some of Iowa’s largest cities. A city that did not receive a letter shouldn’t determine that their ordinances pass muster.”

The push to stop ordinances that forbid panhandling is part of the Housing Not Handcuffs campaign (www.housingnothandcuffs.org). It was started in 2016 by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and more than 100 other organizations to emphasize that criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness.

The formal demand letter today sent by the ACLU of Iowa is part of a coordinated effort among 18 organizations in 12 states targeting more than 240 similarly unconstitutional ordinances.

Note: The ACLU is asking that anyone who has been cited or asked to “move along” for violating one of these unconstitutional ordinances contact them by emailing legal.program@aclu-ia.org or writing us at ACLU of Iowa, 505 5th Ave., Des Moines, Iowa, 50309.

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