September 26, 2013

Panhandling lawsuit thrusts Portland into wider fray on free speech

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.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

In this May 2013 file photo, Alison Prior, 29, of Portland, receives change from a passerby while she panhandles at the corner of Preble Street and Marginal Way. 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.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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.

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