PORTLAND – A lawsuit challenging Portland’s new ban on panhandling in traffic medians has put the city on the front line of a legal debate over free-speech rights that is spreading around the country as a growing number of communities restrict when and where people can ask for money.

Many bans similar to Portland’s have yet to be challenged in court, and the city’s case could set a precedent for other Maine communities.

In Michigan, a federal court struck down a more sweeping state law that prohibited begging in public places, ruling that it violated constitutional free-speech rights.

In Massachusetts, a pending lawsuit challenges Worcester’s more narrow law that limits when and where people can panhandle.

Portland’s new rules, which took effect in August, ban people from street medians.

City officials and supporters of the ordinance say it is needed to ensure the safety of the growing number of panhandlers, as well as motorists. Mayor Michael Brennan defended the ordinance this week, saying it has reduced the number of people standing in medians, and so far hasn’t required police to issue citations or arrest anyone.

Along with free-speech complaints, opponents argue that the ban unfairly targets people who are poor or homeless as a way to keep poverty out of sight.

Three Portland residents — a woman who panhandles and two men who engage in political demonstrations — filed a motion in U.S. District Court on Tuesday seeking to prevent the city from enforcing the ordinance.

In the motion, Zachary Heiden, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and Kevin Martin, an attorney with Boston-based Goodwin Procter, argue that the ban is unconstitutional because it hinders free speech, for panhandlers and anyone who may use those public spaces for political statements or similar activities.

The outcome of the case could directly affect other Maine cities.

Lewiston recently approved a ban on standing in median strips. And, despite the lawsuit against Portland, the Biddeford City Council is expected to move forward with a plan to prohibit any activity — including panhandling — in traffic medians.

“We’re not abridging free speech. You can stand on the sidewalk; you can stand in areas that are safe and say whatever you want to say,” City Manager John Bubier said Wednesday. “What we’re saying, and what Portland has said, is there are places that are patently unsafe to stay.”

The Biddeford City Council will take a final vote on the ban Tuesday. Like Portland, Biddeford has had an influx of panhandlers who stand in the city’s busiest intersections, said city officials.

Maine cities are not alone in considering bans on panhandling.

The ACLU, on behalf of three residents, is suing the city of Worcester, Mass., claiming its laws violate the right to peacefully solicit donations in public and engage in political speech. The city prohibits people from holding signs asking for help during certain hours and in certain places, and makes it illegal to stand on traffic islands.

In 2012, a federal judge ruled that a Michigan state law banning begging in public places violated First Amendment protections for free speech and the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

The lawsuit was brought by two men who were arrested for holding signs asking for help and asking for spare change.

The ruling in Michigan is not considered a direct threat to Portland’s ordinance because that state’s laws were much broader and specifically targeted people who ask for money.

“We really are seeing a trend of legislation of this nature in communities across the country,” said Jeremy Rosen, policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

The center’s 2011 study of 188 cities showed a 7 percent increase since 2009 in prohibitions on begging or panhandling, a 7 percent increase in bans on camping in particular places, and a 10 percent increase in prohibitions on loitering in particular public places.

“In general, the one reason the criminal justice approach seems to be gaining traction is because communities are frustrated as the economic crisis continues,” Rosen said.

“There is less federal, state and local money available for solutions, like providing housing and health care. They feel compelled to respond with a criminal justice approach,” he said.

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant disputes what he calls stereotyping of such local ordinances. The primary concern in Biddeford is not the presence of panhandlers, he said, but any activity in medians that could be unsafe for pedestrians or motorists.

“The majority of the council looked at this not as a rights issue but a safety issue,” he said. “People are concerned about abrupt stopping to give money. Route 111 (where there are medians) is a nightmare to begin with.”

Casavant said he understands the “very fine line” between banning panhandling specifically and addressing larger safety concerns. Biddeford’s ordinance, like Portland’s, would ban anyone from standing in a median, including demonstrators or people raising money for nonprofits.

“They’ll still have the right to panhandle on sidewalks,” Casavant said.

Rachel Healy, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maine, said the organization believes that “any ban as broad as the one in Portland poses constitutional problems.”

However, it’s not likely that the ACLU will immediately challenge similar ordinances in other Maine communities.

“I think at this point we’ll start with Portland because it’s about legal precedent,” Healy said. “Our hope is, by establishing that the Portland ordinance is overbroad, that Lewiston, Biddeford and other towns considering such a policy will take note and adjust accordingly.”

Alison Prior is one of the plaintiffs in Portland. Before the ordinance took effect, she stood on a street median with a sign asking for money. Prior, who is described in the lawsuit as homeless, did not respond to a request to be interviewed Wednesday.

In an interview in May, before the City Council passed the ordinance, Prior said she started asking for money after a string of bad luck and earned as much as $20 to $25 a day while standing on the median at Preble Street and Marginal Way.

“A stick of deodorant — that’s four people who are nice enough to give me a dollar,” she said. 

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6310 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com