A walk down a major street in many cities will likely result in at least one solicitation by a beggar seeking spare change. Some city streets resemble an obstacle course, with residents dodging and weaving to avoid confrontations with beggars in their path.
On July 3, the Los Angeles City Council responded to growing complaints about panhandlers and adopted, on an 8-4 vote, an ordinance that sets restrictions on panhandling.
The ordinance, proposed by Mayor Richard Riordan and City Attorney James Hahn, makes it illegal for beggars to block the path of, or touch, the person they are soliciting. It also makes it illegal to beg at ATM machines, in traffic lanes, on buses and other locations.
Some panhandlers go about their business in a passive manner, making a quiet request or holding out a cup. But others are much more aggressive, making loud, sometimes repeated demands, or persistently following the pedestrian down the street after a request has been denied.
Additionally, some beggars choose to beg in places that are particularly intimidating, such as near ATM machines, or by confronting motorists at red lights, washing their windows without their consent and demanding payment.
This aggressive begging puts the economic and social viability of streets and other public places at risk. Where aggressive panhandlers assemble, people are likely to feel unsafe. If people feel threatened in a particular place, they are likely to avoid the area, resulting in a decline in business and community life, and possibly increased crime.
Although some courts have deemed panhandling to have some constitutional protection as “speech,” communities have substantial leeway in devising regulations on how and where panhandling may occur. In recent years dozens of communities have taken steps to address this problem including San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Sacramento and Santa Cruz, as well as Washington D.C., Baltimore, Cincinnati, Seattle, Philadelphia, Raleigh, N.C., and New Haven, Conn.
Since the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, many have viewed laws regulating public conduct as a threat to the constitutional rights of individuals. Cases from this era were often reactions to the use of old laws to discriminate against minorities. But today, these precedents are being used to override legitimate community interests and to elevate numerous individual desires to the status of rights.
These precedents are being used to advocate the right to colonize public parks, the right to eat and sleep in the public place of one’s choosing and the right to beg in any way one pleases.
Support of an anti-aggressive panhandling ordinance does not mean that a municipality is attacking its poor population, or ignoring or demeaning their plight. Nevertheless, a community can insist upon a certain level of conduct from panhandlers; compassion does not require giving panhandlers free license.
Additionally, many communities have concluded that panhandling rather than providing a service to the poor feeds and enables addiction and perpetuates homelessness.
These new ordinances do not seek to prohibit all panhandling. These ordinances do, however, establish responsible time, place and manner restrictions to increase public safety, minimize harm caused to individuals and the community at large, and facilitate the use of public spaces for their intended purposes. This more tailored approach evolved as older, more general ordinances designed to prohibit all begging were struck down as violations of the First Amendment.
Although one federal district court had ruled that a law focusing on aggressive begging was also unconstitutional, the judge later withdrew his opinion.
Under standard First Amendment analysis, restrictions on soliciting in a public forum, such as a city street or park, should satisfy several requirements in order to pass constitutional muster.
The ordinance must be content neutral. Prohibitions must be tailored to regulate a form of speech (i.e. aggressive solicitation) and apply to all solicitors equally, regardless of the reason they are seeking donations be it for a religious group, a community service organization, or for their own personal use.
The measure must be narrowly tailored and leave open ample alternative channels of communications. Solicitors can still use non-confrontational methods of solicitation, from an open palm to an outright demand, as long as the appeal is not made in the proscribed (e.g. harassing or aggressive) manner.
Finally, the measure must serve a significant state interest. Solicitation controls are designed to protect the public from intimidation and improve the quality of life and economic vitality of urban centers. Courts have found these interests to be pressing and legitimate.
Michael Levine is an entertainment publicist and author based in Beverly Hills.