CINCINNATI- Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio called on members of Cincinnati City Council to reject a proposal by Councilman Jeff Berding that seeks to impose harsh restrictions on panhandlers in the city. The restrictions in the proposal include requiring panhandlers carry a sign that says how much the city of Cincinnati spends on services for the homeless, forcing all panhandlers to register with the city and pay a fee, and limiting the locations and times they may panhandle. The proposal would also tax panhandlers and treat them as if they were street vendors.

“This is a transparent attempt to backdoor restrictions on the free speech rights of the poorest people in Cincinnati. Soliciting donations has time and again been classified as free speech, not as a business,” said ACLU of Ohio Associate Director Gary Daniels. “It is clearly intended to unfairly target only the homeless and not others who may be soliciting donations in Cincinnati.”

“The city simply cannot randomly force a person to display a sign of their choosing or prevent them from carrying their own sign,” added Daniels. “In addition, charging a fee and requiring registration to panhandle will limit those who are unable to pay the fee or secure one of the limited number of available permits. The effect of this legislation would likely only exacerbate the plight of the homeless and silence this community further.”

According to reports, Cincinnati City Council will consider the legislation at its August 5, 2009 meeting.

In 2003, the ACLU of Ohio joined a suit initiated by other civil rights advocates challenging Cincinnati’s overly broad panhandling restrictions. As a result of the lawsuit, the city pledged to stop registering panhandlers and unfairly restricting the time and location they may solicit for money. The case was called Henry v. Cincinnati. The ACLU of Ohio was also part of Clark v. Cincinnati, a 1998 case where the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that two Cincinnati ordinances restricting panhandling were unconstitutional.

“Restricting free speech was a bad idea six years ago and it still is today. City officials should not waste their resources by implementing flawed policies that have been rejected by courts. Instead, we must focus on improving safety in the city and providing increased services to prevent homelessness—without violating the free speech rights of our residents,” concluded Daniels.

Update: 07.17.09
Another victory for free speech rights in Cincinnati. Councilperson changes mind after civil liberties & homeless advocates cry foul.