Court says Worcester effort to crack down on 'aggressive' panhandling not a First Amendment violation

A federal appeals court yesterday upheld Worcester regulations to ban "aggressive" panhandling, saying the city was not trying to squelch anybody's free speech but rather protect the public from panhandlers getting up in the grills of motorists and pedestrians.

Boston has similar regulations against in-your-face solicitation.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit brought by two homeless Worcester residents and a Worcester School Committee member who felt the Aggressive Panhandling Ordinance and the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance, passed by the City Council in 2013, could be used to block people like her from campaigning on traffic islands and in rotaries.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston said the regulations did not discriminate against particular types of speech but rather were "content-neutral" and regulated only the manner of speech.

The ordinances adopted here come with a preamble and accompanying evidence that provide good reason to accept the ostensible objects of the ordinances as the true ones, that is, not suppressing certain kinds of messages but regulating their delivery. The first of these reasons is the fairness of the City's working premise that there are particular, commonly acknowledged circumstances, unrelated to the expression of particular views and messages, in which solicitation can cause serious apprehensiveness, real or apparent coercion, physical offense, or even danger to the person addressed or to all parties. We are not dealing here, in other words, with a mere attempt to suppress a message that some people find distasteful for its content. ...

A person can reasonably feel intimidated or coerced by persistent solicitation after a refusal, and can reasonably feel trapped when sitting in a sidewalk café or standing in line waiting for some service or admittance. And even the stout-hearted can reasonably fear assault when requests for money are made near an ATM where cash may have been obtained and so provide temptation to snatch a wallet or purse. These are not imaginary concerns that smell of pretext. As for the restrictions on using traveled roadways or traffic islands for solicitation or demonstration, it would be hard to gainsay the City Manager's conclusion that the previously unrestricted practice was "an accident waiting to happen" even though it had not happened yet. The whole point of soliciting or demonstrating at such places, after all, is to distract the attention of drivers to some degree. The City Council debates featured recurrent concerns, voiced both by drivers and by former participants in roadside demonstrations, that tag days and other expressive assemblies on medians were dangerous for participants and drivers alike. In sum, common experience confirms that the City has identified behavior and circumstances that it may fairly be concerned about, however much the behavior is associated with certain sorts of messages.



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    By on

    Hmm. This is tricky. I hate panhandling and sales efforts in major intersections (I'm looking at you, people who hurl themselves into traffic at Melnea Cass and Mass Ave), but I also hate the court's logic on why this isn't a First Amendment case. The delivery mechanism is inextricably part of the message; if you say it isn't, then you get side effects like "no net neutrality" or "free speech zones."

    Sometimes the ends don't justify the means. I wonder if this case will make its way to the Supremes. If it does, I look forward to hearing Scalia opine on how Thomas Jefferson was actually talking about horseless carriages when he wrote the Bill of Rights.

    Thomas Jefferson didn't write

    By on

    Thomas Jefferson didn't write the Bill of Rights; George Mason (VA) and James Madison (VA) did. Jefferson didn't attend the Constitutional Convention.... he was in France.

    I'm not a constitutional lawyer, but...

    "harrassed" is fuzzy. Until someone on the street is either threatening someone, blocking someone's passage, or creating a public disturbance (e.g., by screaming and yelling incessantly to the point that people can't reasonably go about their own business), it's pretty hard, legally (as it should be, IMO) for the law to shut him up.


    By on

    All this means is the aggressive panhandlers from Worchester will have to commute to South Station where panhandling is a right and fairly lucrative

    All those folks asking for

    By on

    All those folks asking for money for a train ticket to Worcester will have to find another story to use...