Court Rules Banning Panhandling Violates Free Speech

By: Josh Sidorowicz Email
By: Josh Sidorowicz Email

Cities cannot pass laws banning begging, according to a Federal Court of Appeals ruling on Wednesday.

The court upheld a lower court's ruling from 2012 that said anti-panhandling laws are unconstitutional because they restrict the right of free speech.

Josh Elkins began panhandling in Lansing after he lost his job for taking too much time off to care for his sick wife. He said the ruling comes as a bit of a relief.

"I think it's great for people that do need it," he said. "I mean, I'm happy with it because I've needed it.

Elkins is just one of dozens of panhandlers who can be spotted around the Lansing area.

"I mean some people will say to get a job, but some of us aren't out here for the wrong reasons," he said. "A lot of people think that people get money out here and just go get drugs or alcohol but that's not the case with everybody."

Miriam Aukerman, a staff attorney with the Michigan ACLU said Wednesday's ruling was a victory for freedom of speech.

"Asking for charity is protected by the Constitution and that's very clear, it's true for the Salvation Army bell-ringers or for the American Cancer Society," she said. "And what the Court of Appeals said today is that applies equally to people who are begging."

Randy Hannan, spokesperson for Lansing Mayor Bernero's office said it's still too early to tell how the ruling will affect the city's local ordinances on panhandling.

The Mayor has requested the city attorney review the ruling to determine how the city should proceed.

Last year, then-City Attorney Brig Smith told News 10 Lansing held off on enforcing its panhandling ordinance while it waited to see how the federal lawsuit played out.

Instead police use "obstruction of traffic" ordinances to move panhandlers off corners because that targets behavior and not speech and therefore isn't covered by Wednesday's ruling.

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