Indianapolis panhandling ordinance found constitutional

Wednesday, September 6, 2000

An Indianapolis ordinance that limits street begging and bans “aggressive panhandling” does not violate the First Amendment, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

In June 1999, the city amended its panhandling ordinance to prohibit
nighttime panhandling, “aggressive panhandling” and panhandling in certain
locations, such as near ATMs.

The ordinance defines “aggressive panhandling” as “touching the
solicited person without the solicited person’s consent, using profane language
while soliciting someone and blocking the path of a person being solicited.”

Jimmy Gresham, an Indianapolis homeless person who lives on Social
Security disability benefits and whatever monies he can solicit from
panhandling, challenged the law on First Amendment grounds. He alleged it
infringed on his free-speech rights and was unconstitutionally vague.

After a federal district court dismissed his suit in 1999, Gresham
appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Aug. 31, a three-judge
panel of the 7th Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling in
Gresham v. Peterson.

The panel noted that other federal courts had found that panhandling
was a form of free speech. The panel also noted that “beggars at times may
communicate important political or social messages” in their solicitations.

However, the panel determined that “the city has a legitimate interest
in promoting the safety and convenience of its citizens on public streets.”

The panel also determined that the ordinance, because it did not
completely ban all panhandling, should be analyzed as a time, place and manner
restriction on speech.

According to the panel, the ordinance was constitutional because it
was narrowly tailored to serve a significant government purpose and because it
left open alternative avenues of communication.

The panel wrote that a beggar “may hold up signs requesting money or
engage in street performances, such as playing music, with an implicit appeal
for money.” The appeals court panel also noted that the ordinance still
allowed daytime panhandling as long as it was not “aggressive.”

The court also determined that the phrase “aggressive panhandling” was
not vague.

Kenneth Falk, legal director for the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and
Gresham’s attorney, said he was not sure if the decision would be appealed. “We
are happy the court recognized that this was a First Amendment activity, but we
still believe that the restrictions are too onerous under the First Amendment
and that the ordinance is vague,” he said.

Beth White, deputy corporation counsel for the city, said the
ordinance is an “appropriate time, place and manner restriction on panhandling”
and “is not an unreasonable restriction on First Amendment rights.”

Tags: ,