Wisconsin Public Radio

ACLU Targets Anti-Panhandling Laws

Citing Supreme Court case, calls on five suburbs to repeal ordinances against panhandling.

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Sep 5th, 2018 11:23 am
ACLU asks eight Wisconsin cities to repeal their anti-panhandling laws. Free photo from Pexels.

ACLU asks eight Wisconsin cities to repeal their anti-panhandling laws. Free photo from Pexels.

Eight Wisconsin cities were sent letters from the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin to repeal their anti-panhandling laws last week.

The ACLU of Wisconsin asked leaders of Altoona, Glendale, Mequon, Racine, Superior, Shorewood, Waukesha and Wauwatosa to remove their panhandling ordinances in reference to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the free speech case, Reed v. the Town of Gilbert.

The letters are part of a national campaign targeting 240 panhandling laws across 12 states organized by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

“People who ask for donations for themselves deserve the same protections under the First Amendment as someone asking others to donate to a charity,” Chris Ott, executive director of the ACLU Wisconsin, told WPR’s “The Morning Show.”

Shortly after Reed v. the Town of GilbertNorton v. the City of Springfield applied that ruling to panhandling ordinances, saying you can’t target speech because you don’t like the topic or the message, said Karyn Rotker, an attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin.

“If two people were walking down the street and someone said, ‘I want to raise money for a charity, can you give me $500 or $1,000 to feed the homeless?’ That would have been permissible under any of these quote anti-panhandling ordinances unquote,” she said.

Yet, if a person asked for $2 to feed himself or herself on the street, that would have been a criminal or a municipal violation under anti-panhandling laws, Rotker said.

Waukesha City Administrator Kevin Lahner, who has not yet seen the letter, was surprised Waukesha was included in the list, he said.

The city’s ordinance prohibits panhandling at bus stops, at any public transportation vehicle or facility, or within 50 feet of an ATM or entrance to a bank. Harassing or intimidating passerby for money or goods is also included in the ordinance. Violators can be fined up to $50.

“It’s a pretty reasonable regulation,” he said. “People have expectations for not being asked for funds at certain public places.”

Panhandling ordinances vary across municipalities, in some you can be ticketed just for asking, in others it depends where you’re panhandling, and in some places you are ticketed only when showing aggressive behavior while panhandling.

Yet everywhere they’ve been challenged in federal court since 2015, they’ve been found unconstitutional, Rotker said.

Wauwatosa’s ordinance cites “aggressive panhandling” and received the letter late last week. The common council will review it in the coming weeks, said City Attorney Alan Kesner in an email.

Twenty-five local panhandling ordinances have been ruled unconstitutional since the SCOTUS ruling and 31 municipalities have voluntarily taken back their anti-panhandling laws, according to the ACLU.

The focus of the campaign is to find solutions at the heart of the issue and to not criminalize poverty, Ott said.

“(It’s) also saying we need to try and find more ways to provide affordable safe and decent housing for people who need it,” Rotker said. “We want the discussions to involve trying to fix the problem, the underlying issues that caused people to end up panhandling.”

ACLU Requests 8 Wisconsin Cities Repeal Anti-Panhandling Laws was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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