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Over the objection of civil liberties and homeless advocates, Pensacola city council members on Thursday approved a controversial ordinance which will ban panhandling in much of the city’s downtown core.

City council president Brian Spencer and council members Andy Terhaar, Larry B. Johnson, Gerald Wingate, and Jewel Cannada-Wynn voted in support of the ordinance, while council members P.C. Wu and Sherri Myers voted no.

The vote Thursday was the first of two required readings on the ordinance, which is sponsored by Spencer and Mayor Ashton Hayward and supported by the Downtown Improvement Board and Greater Pensacola Chamber. Council members will have to approve the proposed ordinance a second time in May for it to become law.

The ordinance would make it illegal for anyone to ask for a donation, either verbally or by holding up a sign, within the newly-established “Downtown Visitors District,” roughly defined as two blocks on either side of Palafox Street. In addition to panhandlers, street performers would also be barred from asking for donations. Violators of the ordinance would be issued civil citations and fined.

Pensacola City Council President Brian Spencer, left, and Mayor Ashton Hayward, right, have cosponsored a controversial ordinance that would ban panhandling in downtown Pensacola. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

Under a first draft of the law presented in March, charities like the Salvation Army would also have been barred from seeking donations on the street, but the revised ordinance carves out an exemption for charitable groups that obtain a special permit.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida opposes the ordinance.

“This proposed ordinance is a direct violation of citizens’ rights,” said ACLU staff attorney Jacqueline Azis. “Freedom of speech, both under the U.S. and Florida constitutions, is a fundamental right afforded to all citizens — political activists, religious leaders, and yes, even those who are homeless. The city council should not be in the business of limiting speech because it doesn’t like the message of the speaker or how the speaker looks.”

ACLU officials pointed to the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, in which the court rejected a local government’s attempt to regulate signs based on their content.

“Ordinances in Florida and throughout the nation, which were similar to the one you are considering, have been consistently declared unconstitutional by the courts,” Azis wrote in a letter to city council members.

Council member Sherri Myers said she does not feel the ordinance would survive a court challenge.

Pensacola councilwoman Sherri Myers voted against the proposed ordinance. (The Pulse/Derek Cosson)

“I don’t feel like this ordinance, as it’s written, is the right approach,” said Myers, who also said she believes the ordinance violates the the First Amendment.

The city council previously adopted an ordinance addressing aggressive panhandling in 2013. That law prohibits panhandling near major intersections, ATMs, and sidewalk cafés, among other areas.

Downtown Improvement Board officials plan to propose additional legislation that would allow street musicians under limited circumstances.

The ordinance will likely come back up for a second reading at the council’s May 11 meeting.

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