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
Staff Writer

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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

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:


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