UPDATE 1/14/2014: Missoula commissioners voted Monday night to send the ordinance back to committee for reconsideration.
Missoula Commissioners may vote tonight to reconsider an ordinance that criminalizes panhandling.
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.
ACLU of Montana staff attorney Anna Conley and Missoula Mayor John Engen took time last week to measure parts of the downtown business district to see just what the ordinance meant, and found that it essentially prohibits constitutionally protected free speech in most of the downtown core.
Conley has been working with the mayor and other council members to repeal the ordinance or find ways to make the ordinance constitutional.
A federal judge recently ruled 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.
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.
We are hopeful that the city of Missoula will vote tonight to reconsider its ordinance.