The ACLU of Michigan has sent a letter to Battle Creek officials warning that anti-panhandling ordinances, which city officials announced they are considering, violate constitutional free-speech rights and suggest that the city doesn't want poor people.
In the letter sent on Monday, ACLU attorneys urge city leaders to dump the idea of the ordinance out of concerns that the ban was too broad, wouldn't withstand constitutional scrutiny and would also deem other forms of speech--such as solicitations for charities--to be illegal.
"The proposed ordinance will violate the constitutional rights of people who are struggling to survive, will criminalize a great deal of speech other than panhandling, and will send a message that poor people are unwelcome in Battle Creek," reads the letter, which was sent to Battle Creek Mayor Dave Walters, the vice mayor, city commissioners and the city manager.
The letter marks the latest effort by the ACLU of Michigan to defend First Amendment rights against illegal anti-solicitation efforts.
Read the ACLU of Michigan letter urging Battle Creek not to adopt illegal anti-panhandling ordinance
In 2011, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging an archaic state "anti-begging" law as a violation of free speech rights. One defendant in that case had been arrested for holding up a sign on a sidewalk saying, “Need a Job. God Bless.” The other, a veteran, had been arrested for asking a stranger for bus fare. The ACLU pointed out that other people, including firefighters, regularly raise funds on the streets and sidewalks of Grand Rapids for charitable causes without being charged with a crime.
Judge Robert Jonker ruled in 2012 that the Michigan law is unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement throughout the state. In August 2013 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, ruling that begging is protected speech. In October 2013, the ACLU sent letters to 84 municipalities across the state notifying them that, in light of the Sixth Circuit ruling, their anti-begging ordinances are unconstitutional and should be repealed.
The ACLU of Michigan, in conjunction with the Wayne State Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Clinic, filed a federal lawsuit against Waterford Township in February 2014 to ensure that local anti-begging ordinances are declared unconstitutional. The case settled after Waterford officials agreed to pay damages and attorneys’ fees and amend township ordinances so that begging is no longer illegal there.
Learn more about the ACLU of Michigan's efforts to keep illegal anti-panhandling ordinances off the books