Court shoots down Grand Junction panhandling ordinance

Federal district judge Christine Arguello on Wednesday put an end to Grand Junction’s panhandling ordinance, ruling the law violates the First Amendment right to raise funds in public for charity.

This is the same interpretation of the First Amendment that allows Salvation Army bell ringers to dress up like Santa Clause and ask for change, the Girl Scouts to peddle Thin Mints and Peanut Butter Patties, and groups like Greenpeace — which signed on as one of the plaintiffs in the Grand Junction case — to brandish clipboards and recruit members on sidewalks.

One premise the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado used in building its case for striking down the ordinance is that when homeless people ask for money they are doing far more than surviving. They are also engaged in public speech about the failures of social services and other government systems and civic safety nets that allow homelessness to persist.

“The court said a city attempting to regulate panhandling is attempting to regulate messages about the conditions of poverty,” the ACLU’s Mark Silverstein told The Colorado Independent.

The court’s ruling may force municipalities throughout Colorado to pull or rewrite panhandling laws – something some cities already are doing.

Wednesday’s decision was made the same day Colorado Springs’ police chief announced that he is instructing officers to stop enforcing several parts of that city’s panhandling ordinance. The memo came in response to a September 14 letter sent to Colorado Springs and Denver officials from the ACLU.

Colorado Springs police had been overstepping the bounds of the ordinance by ticketing people sitting passively with signs – which was actually allowed.

City attorneys also barred officers from enforcing other parts of the ordinance that pending court decisions would likely determine were unconstitutional.

In a statement, Colorado Springs police chief Pete Carey wrote: “One of the dynamic things in law enforcement is that we must always adapt to changes in the law whether it is through new legislation or through Supreme Court decisions.”

ACLU staffers are still waiting for a reply to their letter to Denver officials about how that city plans to address the legal knots written into its panhandling ordinance.

Photo credit: Photo credit: Corena Hasselle, Creative Commons, Flickr