Asking for Help Is Protected Speech—Even If You Are Homeless
By Joe Mead
Helping out a neighbor in need is one of the best things that we do as humans. It shouldn’t be a crime to ask for that help.
Yet Akron, Dayton, and other cities across Ohio and the country have passed laws that try to silence those in need from telling others about it. By discriminating against speech that asks for a donation, many of these restrictions on panhandling and charitable solicitation are cruel efforts to silence the downtrodden. The First Amendment tolerates no such thing.
City Councils to Poor People: “Shut up!”
Silencing expressions of need is a key strategy used by many local governments to hide the homeless in their communities. Government leaders freely admit their goal is to silence the poor to appease local businesses. For example, an official City of Dayton press release touts a main goal of its restrictions as “maintain[ing] the quality of the business and visitor environment.”
In other words: “Shut up, poor people! Your hunger bothers business owners.”
Some local governments have gone to great efforts to try to silence people in need. For example:
- A Dayton ordinance requires that every person asking for a donation first be photographed and fingerprinted, and fill out an application with the police.
- The City of Akron made it a crime to fundraise after sunset anywhere in the City. The City of Youngstown is considering adopting a law that does the same.
- Parents of a child raising money for a school or charity are criminals, according to the City of Dayton.
- Two or more people fundraising together is banned in much of Summit County.
- Laws in these and other areas establish indiscriminate “buffer zones” that keep those seeking contributions away from large chunks of the city.
These laws typically restrict or ban charitable solicitations of all stripes, includes asking for donations for a food bank, selling Girl Scout cookies, trick or treating around Halloween, and passing around a collection plate to a church’s congregation. Yet police look the other way unless, of course, the speaker appears to be homeless.
Yes, the First Amendment Does Protect Nonprofits and People Who Are Homeless
Learn more about the legal flaws with charitable solicitation ordinances.
Freedom of speech belongs to the rich and the poor alike, and applies whether the community finds the speech or the speaker to be agreeable or not. By allowing all voices into the marketplace of ideas, the First Amendment entrusts citizens—not their government—with the choice to decide which causes to heed and which requests to answer. This is the First Amendment’s promise and its power. In several recent decisions, the Supreme Court has strongly reaffirmed several important principles that highlight the constitutional problem with charitable solicitation rules.
First, messages driven by a pressing human need are fully covered by the Constitution. Nonprofits and individuals alike have a First Amendment right to communicate a need and invite the listener to help.
Second, unpopular speech is as deserving of protection as speech that people enjoy. As the Supreme Court explained, the fact that an “individual confronted with an uncomfortable message” on a sidewalk cannot “turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site” is a “virtue, not a vice.” The fact that some people would rather not hear a message is not a legitimate basis for the government to censor that speech.
Third, laws that impose different limits on speech based on content are presumptively unconstitutional. Charitable solicitation restrictions limit a person raising money for a charity in ways that a person complaining about businesses, or gossiping about celebrities is not. The First Amendment provides that government should not be picking the messages it likes and doesn’t like.
With these principles clearly established by the Supreme Court, every single lower federal court decision in recent months to address the issue has been hostile to panhandling restrictions. This year alone, federal appellate courts have ruled against restrictive charitable solicitation laws in Illinois, Maine, Michigan, and Virginia.
Yet the struggle to preserve constitutional rights of everyone—including the poor—continues in Ohio. After we got involved, the City of Youngstown agreed that its ban on begging was unconstitutional and stopped enforcing it. But as other Ohio cities continue their aggressive efforts to silence the poor, we are working to remind our local leaders of their constitutional responsibilities to all members of their communities.
The First Amendment protects the speech of the poor and of charities, as well as that of the wealthy. No one is required to be charitable, but you have every right to tell others about your need.