ACLU-WA Asks Court to Overturn Anti-Panhandling Law

Friday, January 8, 2016
The ACLU of Washington has filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Washington Supreme Court to strike down a Lakewood ordinance that unconstitutionally infringes on freedom of speech. 

The brief was submitted filed in the case of a man who is appealing his conviction for panhandling near the intersection of a freeway exit ramp and a city street. In The City of Lakewood v. Robert W. Willis, the ACLU explained that panhandling is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Numerous courts have found that begging and other ways of seeking donations – whether undertaken by a charitable organization or by individuals on their own behalf – is expressive activity entitled to the full protections of the First Amendment.  

Courts have long recognized that those who panhandle may communicate important political or social messages in their appeals for money, explaining their conditions in related to veteran status, homelessness, unemployment and disability, to name a few. As a federal court recently noted, “a sign reading ‘Sober,’ or ‘Two children,’ conveys a message about who is deserving of charitable support, just as a sign reading ‘God bless,’ expresses a religious message.”

Because panhandling is protected speech, in order to restrict it, the government must do so in a way that is both neutral as to the content of the message and is narrowly tailored to the particular harm asserted by the city as justification for the restriction. 

The Lakewood city ordinance under which Willis was convicted fails on both of these counts. It is overbroad, as it restricts panhandling at an array of locations throughout the city and at various hours, without regard to whether there is actually obstruction of traffic. And by making a specific type of message a crime – asking for charity as opposed to advertising a business – the law fails to remain content-neutral.

The Court of Appeals ruled that Lakewood’s anti-panhandling ordinance was constitutional because a freeway ramp is not a public forum and therefore the restriction need only be reasonable and viewpoint neutral. Yet at the intersection in question, Lakewood permitted speech for other purposes, including political signs, signs for employment, signs for church, real estate sales, advertising for community and charitable functions.

Lakewood already has a constitutional way to address panhandling if it poses a safety risk: regulate the conduct of individuals who intentionally obstruct traffic for any purpose in areas with safety concerns. The city’s obstruction of traffic law does not single out protected speech and make such speech a crime. Instead, it is aimed at behavior. Lakewood’s interest in public safety is best served simply by enforcing the existing traffic law rather than doing that which the First Amendment clearly prohibits: targeting disfavored speech. 

The brief was written by ACLU-WA cooperating attorney Venkat Balasubramani of Focal PLLC.
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