CLEVELAND – Today the ACLU of Ohio in a letter nationally coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, urged 69 Ohio municipalities to repeal their bans on panhandling. Since the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert finding heightened protections for free speech, every case brought against panhandling ordinances—more than 25 to date—has been found unconstitutional.
“No one wants to see poor people have to beg for money,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “But until all their basic needs—food, health care, and housing—are met, they have the right to ask for help.”
“Do we really want the government to decide what people are and are not allowed to talk about?” asked Joe Mead, volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Ohio. “The First Amendment means that cities cannot ban speech simply because people would rather not hear the message. Yet that is precisely what 69 Ohio ordinances do. They single out and punish panhandlers who ask for money,” concluded Mead.
Since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, 100 percent of lawsuits against cities with panhandling bans have been successful in striking down the bans, and at least an additional 31 cities have repealed their ordinances. In February 2017 the ACLU challenged Cleveland’s panhandling ordinance as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. 10 months later the city repealed its ordinances and paid damages to the plaintiffs.
“We’ve seen this over and over again in Ohio. Whether it’s Akron, Youngstown, or Cleveland, cities try to criminalize poverty by ticketing individuals who are asking for help. Not only are anti-panhandling ordinances unconstitutional, they’re bad public policy. These 69 cities must end these unconstitutional bans, which have been consistently struck down in courts,” added Mead.
The ACLU of Ohio, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, together with the National Coalition for the Homeless and more than 100 other organizations, launched the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign (www.housingnothandcuffs.org) in 2016 to emphasize criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness. The letter by the ACLU of Ohio today is part of a coordinated effort amongst 18 organizations in 12 states targeting more than 240 similar outdated ordinances. See nlchp.org/panhandling for more information.
Read a sample letter here.