Violating freedom of speech is no way to overcome homelessness

Homeless woman. Credit: YouTube.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the Florida economy and, according to social service providers, has made more people homeless, despite attempts to block evictions.

Along with homelessness comes an increase in the number of people needing charitable assistance.

Instead of helping residents in need, cities have responded by creating ordinances severely restricting where people can ask others for money. West Palm Beach, Port Orange, and Delray Beach recently passed such measures.

In doing so, elected officials are clearly violating established guarantees protecting freedom of speech.

It is not against the law to ask people for money. If it were, charities could not function, and most politicians would be in jail. The pandemic has not altered that basic right.

A plea for charity that a person makes to members of the local populace is a form of free speech as legally protected as speech regarding politics or religion. If the thought of the government prohibiting one’s right to speak about religion or politics infuriates you, so too should ordinances prohibiting charitable requests.

In traditional public forums — streets, sidewalks, plazas — the government cannot discriminate against persons based on their viewpoints or the topic or category of speech that they wish to discuss. The fact that a person is indigent and asking for money in a public place does not change this.

The right to make charitable requests has been affirmed by state and federal courts many times, including courts in Florida.

U.S. Supreme Court, Dec. 2, 2019. Credit: Robin Bravender

Since the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, an Arizona case, every single panhandling ordinance challenged in federal court across the country has been struck down as an unconstitutional infringement on our right to free speech, as well as other constitutional protections.

Other panhandling ordinances have been repealed for the same reasons. These most recent ordinances are sure to meet the same fate.

In West Palm Beach, City Attorney Kimberly Rothenburg acknowledged that a citywide ban on panhandling would be unconstitutional, but insisted one limited to the downtown and Northwood areas will pass legal muster.

This just isn’t so. The government can’t decide what speech topics are permitted and which must be silenced in certain parts of town.

Meanwhile, Floridians continue to suffer from the COVID-19 pandemic and vast unemployment. There is a shortage of affordable housing in Florida, as well as insufficient social services for people experiencing homelessness, including mental health care.

Have efforts been made to address these issues? Yes. Have they been enough? No. But the answer isn’t to deny certain residents freedom of speech so that city officials can appease aesthetic concerns of more affluent residents.

Criminalizing requests for charity will only make matters worse for the cities’ vulnerable residents. All of these recent ordinances allow for up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine for anyone caught requesting charity.

The irony of this predicament should not be lost — a person who requests charity out of desperation is only further hampered financially when they are arrested and convicted for requesting charity.

It will also make it harder for them to get hired, to access services, and to pay off debts they may have.

Panhandling laws are cruel means to conceal real, deep-rooted issues within communities.

Prohibiting requests for charity does not mean the need for charity will dissipate. It only means the need may be less visible in certain areas of town; individuals will still need assistance and will likely seek charity in other neighborhoods throughout the cities.

The cities can waste taxpayer money trying to defend the ordinances in court, but they will undoubtedly face the same fate many similar measures across the country have faced.

They will be deemed unconstitutional. Better to use the money to further address the root causes of homelessness.

We call on Florida cities to choose compassion over criminalization, kindness over hatred, and to stand up for freedom of speech.