Supreme Court Ruling Dismantles Panhandling Laws

The 2015 decision concerned church-related signage, but its free speech underpinnings have made it the case-law basis for successful court challenges of local panhandling laws across the country. “It’s an unanticipated consequence,” said an Ohio city attorney.

A 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on churches and free speech set a new legal precedent that’s now being used to take down panhandling laws in U.S. cities, Governing reports. In that Arizona case, the court ruled that government regulations curtailing free speech have to be as narrow as possible and must fulfill a “compelling government interest.” At issue was a town ordinance that restricted signs for religious services. But the decision, which applies to any local rules that limit certain types of speech, has caught some cities by surprise. “It’s an unanticipated consequence,” says Joshua Cox of the city attorney’s office in Columbus, Ohio, where police recently announced they would stop enforcing a ban on aggressive panhandling.

The ACLU had long argued that it was unconstitutional for municipalities to prohibit people from begging for money in public spaces. The Arizona decision strengthened their argument. Within two months of the decision, a federal appeals court deemed a panhandling ban in Springfield, Ill., unconstitutional. Federal courts have also struck down panhandling laws in Tampa; Grand Junction, Colo.; Portland, Maine, and Worcester and Lowell, Mass. In Ohio alone, lawsuits brought by the ACLU have led Akron, Cleveland and Toledo to repeal all or parts of their panhandling bans. Most cities have some kind of ban on panhandling. Last year, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that 61 percent of 186 cities had laws banning begging in “particular public places,” such as commercial or tourist districts.