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.