A federal judge ruled yesterday that a Boise ordinance prohibiting panhandling is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.
The ordinance is similar to one recently passed in Missoula, which the ACLU of Montana opposes. Courts, like the U.S. District Court in Boise, have repeatedly ruled that begging is a protected form of speech. What could be more important speech than expressing a desperate need for food, shelter and clothing? The Missoula ordinance and ordinances like it single out the poor, seeking to quash their free expression. This violates the First Amendment.
Federal Court Judge Edward Lodge enjoined the City of Boise from enforcing the ordinance which was set to go into effect on Jan. 2. Lodge said the purpose of the ordinance is to "suppress particular speech." The important point is "not about whether being asked for a donation of money on a sidewalk makes a person feel uncomfortable," but, "about whether under our Constitution a person has a First Amendment right to ask for money" in public. Business owners and residents simply not liking panhandlers in acknowledged public areas does not rise to a significant governmental interest."
The ruling was in response to the case ACLU of Idaho v. City of Boise, in which the ACLU of Idaho and two homeless Boise residents sued the city over the new law.
"I am very relieved," said one of the plaintiffs, Larry Shanks. "It's a huge weight off my shoulders. Every night I would go to bed thinking about what would happen if this passed. I am relieved for my family and the common citizens as their rights were also in trouble."
In addition to a prohibition on solicitations for money downtown and in much of Missoula, the Missoula ordinance also prohibits sitting or lying on sidewalks within 20 feet of an entrance to a building, within 20 feet of a footbridge or tunnel and prohibits sitting or lying on the sidewalk downtown from 6 a.m.-11 p.m.
To criminalize things like sleeping and sitting in public spaces when there are not enough shelters and not enough services in Missoula to help the poor and homeless is inhumane and a violation of the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. To prohibit someone without a chair and without a bed from sitting or lying down in public places is incredibly cruel.
We are hopeful that the city of Missoula will reconsider its ordinance.