Portland will not pursue any further legal efforts to keep panhandlers off street medians.

City councilors decided not to appeal a federal court ruling that struck down a city ordinance designed to ban the practice, said Jessica Grondin, Portland’s communications director, in a statement released Tuesday evening.

Although the ordinance – which initially banned standing on medians for any reason – was immediately challenged in court and never enforced, Tuesday’s announcement ends three years of debate among Portland city councilors, police officials, First Amendment rights advocates and the public over whether such a ban was needed or legal.

“While the City Council feels they have done everything they could to defend the city’s median strip ordinance to date, they have chosen to not pursue an appeal of the First Circuit ruling … to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Grondin said in the statement.

“The city will, however, remain focused and continue to review ways in which it can address this public safety issue since safety has always been, and continues to be paramount.”

Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which helped argue the case, applauded the decision saying the city faced long odds of having the case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court decided two relevant free speech cases while the legal challenge of Portland’s ordinance was pending before the First Circuit court. Those cases directly affected Portland’s outcome.

“It was a very well-written, well-reasoned decision, and I don’t just say that because we won,” Heiden said of the First Circuit decision, handed down in February 2014.

OTHER WAYS TO ADDRESS SAFETY

While acknowledging the legitimate safety issues posed by people standing close to passing traffic, panhandling aggressively or intentionally damaging passing cars, Heiden said all those activities could have been addressed through previously established laws.

“I think those are all important concerns that can be addressed without abridging anyone’s First Amendment rights,” Heiden said.

The city’s ordinance prohibited people from standing on street medians to ask for money, make political statements or for other reasons, but later clarified that the city would exempt people who place campaign signs or other placards on medians – which in part led the court to strike the law down.

By allowing campaign signs, the court wrote, Portland was favoring one type of speech over another. This violated a basic parameter established by the prior court decisions that allows restrictions on First Amendment rights only if they are content-neutral, narrowly tailored and absolutely necessary to serve a compelling state interest.

BAN DRIVEN BY COMPLAINTS

City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who first voted against the ban but then voted for it when it came back to the council, said Tuesday that he agrees with dropping the appeal.

“What I’ve come to conclude is that there is not a significant safety concern of people standing on median strips,” Donoghue said. “If there is a safety concern, it’s of people standing in the roadway.”

The ordinance was first proposed in 2012, but was rejected by city councilors. It was revived a year later after public pressure to revisit the issue. Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck also said the ban was needed, citing increased complaints about panhandlers over two years.

City councilors voted unanimously in August 2013 to enact the ordinance, but it was almost immediately challenged in court and suspended from going into effect until the legal challenge could be settled.