Judge rules homeless people have rights, people lose their minds

A federal judge recently made this excellent ruling:

A Portland, Maine, city ordinance banning people from panhandling in the median strips of roads violates the U.S. Constitution, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

The ordinance, which passed in August, prohibited people from loitering in roadways unless they were placing political campaign signs, a distinction that U.S. District Judge George Singal said violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

City officials had argued that increasing numbers of panhandlers in 2012 and 2013 had become a traffic hazard along the city’s roadways. They said the ban was necessary to ensure public safety.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine challenged the ban on behalf of two anti-war activists and a panhandler who told the court she collected between $20 and $25 per day from passing motorists.

“The First Amendment protects all of us, no matter what views we hold or how much money we make,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, in a statement.

Heiden said that the economic downturn had increased the visibility of panhandlers in Maine and elsewhere.

“These bans haven’t come about because of an increase in accidents,” he said. “What we’re seeing is more people coming to the streets to ask for assistance.”

No one denies that Portland created this ordinance as a direct response to panhandlers. The city certainly made up the increased traffic accidents excuse, but it was surprisingly open with its disdain for the homeless. And that was its downfall: the government cannot restrict one type of speech while allowing another. In this case, the city banned panhandlers from standing on a median but it allowed political activists to use the median to plant signs. Let’s examine that for even a second.

If it’s true that people in medians are a safety hazard, then it follows that it doesn’t really matter whether they’re standing, pacing, or only there briefly. If the median is dangerous, it’s dangerous, and so no one should have access to it outside a crosswalk zone. Given that the city believes it’s perfectly safe for people to be there, even if only briefly, we have a good piece of evidence that the medians aren’t all that dangerous.

One counter to this point is that the sign planters are only temporary. That actually doesn’t address the issue since people are still in the median while cars are going by them, but let’s pretend it does. Even if the brevity of a person’s median visit changes things, we have to ask why the city has road signs in the median. After all, a road sign that says U-turns are illegal or that there’s no right turn on red is just as dangerous as a standing person. Both are obstructions in the median. Both are there to get the attention of drivers. Of course, there have been zero cries to reduce median signage. Funny that, huh?

Given that traffic accidents have not increased significantly in the area – and given the more important fact that traffic accidents haven’t been caused by people standing in medians, anyway – it is utterly clear the city ordinance was just a way to stop people from begging. Since begging is a clear type of speech, the city ordinance was designed to shut up people who express unpopular speech.

To me this is a really clear cut First Amendment issue. People beg, a city doesn’t like it, an ordinance is passed to curb begging and exceptions are made for desired speech like campaign signs. No brainer. Yet when I saw this link posted on Facebook by the local news outlets, nearly every comment was outrage. Part of that is likely selection bias since people tend to comment more frequently on things that make them mad, but it was still pretty overwhelming. Why, all these grifters are living the high life. Homelessness is a glamorous lifestyle for scammers and drunks! And the number of people who don’t know that begging is a form of speech is astounding. The government doesn’t get to tell me what I’m allowed to ask from people. If I want help pushing my car out of the snow or if I’m raising money for a charity or if I just want a piece of gum, no government should be able to stop me. The same goes for people who are asking for money, food, and other items.

The only semi-legit response to this ruling has been people who complain of the homeless people in Portland that walk between the cars when traffic is stopped. Sometimes they get aggressive, they get in the way, and they often leave trash from the things they’re given. None of that, of course, justifies the government denying them their right to beg in the first place. Violating the First Amendment was never an acceptable solution. What the government should have done was 1) ban all access to the medians, 2) enforce jaywalking and other laws, or 3) redesigned their roads to get rid of medians/make them impossible to stand on. I’m sure there are some other options, but only the options along these lines are legal.

Bravo to the judge, I say. Not only did he make the correct ruling, but he barely even bothered to address the fundamental issue of whether or not begging is protected speech. This is great because there was no reason to address it. It was long ago established that begging was a form of speech, just like flag burning or blogging; the issue is fundamental to the First Amendment, not the specifics of this case. The only issue to be addressed here was whether or not Portland violated the speech that is begging. This correct ruling is a victory for everyone.

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3 Responses

  1. “people are still [temporarily] in the median while cars are going by them”

    This is like saying that it’s OK to get your teeth X-rayed 24 hours per day, because after all you already accepted that risk for the tiny snapshot that the hygienist sets up and then hides around the corner to take. When it comes to acceptable risk, yeah, duration matters.

    “we have to ask why the city has road signs in the median”

    Signs stay put. They don’t move. They sure don’t approach the vehicle. And they convey information that is required to drive correctly, and that balances whatever risk there may be from their placement.

    Still, I agree that it was a first amendment violation. If you can allow political advertising, then you must allow all advertising (unless it’s porn, right? Or a trademark violation. Or libel. Or someone else’s copyrighted image. Or a US state secret. Or a false road sign. etc.). Hmm. Well, maybe it’s not a violation after all.

    I would recommend reinstating the ban, including a ban on all advertising in the medians. If the cost of safety for median pedestrians and car drivers is the elimination of ads from that particular space, it’s a reasonable trade.

  2. This is like saying that it’s OK to get your teeth X-rayed 24 hours per day, because after all you already accepted that risk for the tiny snapshot that the hygienist sets up and then hides around the corner to take. When it comes to acceptable risk, yeah, duration matters.

    That analogy is no good. The city was claiming that it’s dangerous to be in the median. If that’s true, then there should be no access to it outside of crosswalk areas. Moreover, there shouldn’t be any road signs, like No U-turn signs and the like, since those are in the medians 24/7.

    Signs stay put. They don’t move. They sure don’t approach the vehicle. And they convey information that is required to drive correctly, and that balances whatever risk there may be from their placement.

    Pacing back and forth doesn’t change anything significantly. Simply declaring that something which moves is dangerous doesn’t cut it. Why is it dangerous? The best anyone has is that the homeless people walk up to cars. That’s an entirely different problem. The city is free to address it with jaywalking enforcement.

    And as to signs in the median, they aren’t all for driving. Banners are often hung for city events or even just to add some flair. (Not to mention all the political signs.)

    I would recommend reinstating the ban, including a ban on all advertising in the medians. If the cost of safety for median pedestrians and car drivers is the elimination of ads from that particular space, it’s a reasonable trade.

    Everything I’ve read about this has people taking it for granted that there actually is a safety issue. There isn’t. That’s why people were allowed in the median for absolutely any reason they pleased except one under the ordinance. It’s one of the reasons why the judge ruled as he did. It’s safe to be in medians of Portland. Any increase in accidents isn’t attributable to panhandlers. The reality is, people just don’t like being asked for money. The speech was undesired, so the city acted, albeit improperly.

  3. Well, I hope the ruling stands. I’m tired of these BS ‘public safety’ excuses to stifle the free speech of others.

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