The ACLU of Florida released a statement ahead of Thursday night’s Pensacola City Council meeting, where council members will take a second and final vote on a controversial anti-panhandling ordinance:
The Pensacola city council is expected to give final approval tonight for an anti-panhandling ordinance which would prohibit individuals from asking for donations in much of downtown Pensacola. Responding to the expected vote, ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jacqueline Azis stated:
“We have again and again warned the city council that this law is a constitutionally suspect attack on the rights of the community’s neediest members. The courts have repeatedly spoken on this issue when it has been tried elsewhere: cities cannot ban certain kinds of speech just because hearing it makes some people uncomfortable.
“If the city council is concerned about homelessness in downtown Pensacola, they should focus on addressing the underlying causes of the problem, not attacking the rights of those who are living in homelessness. This ordinance doesn’t address the problem, treats the community’s most vulnerable like a criminal nuisance, and leaves the city exposed to litigation.”
The ordinance would make it illegal to ask for donations, either verbally or using a sign, within the “Downtown Visitors District,” roughly defined as two blocks on either side of Palafox Street, from Wright Street south to the bay. There’s an exemption for charitable organizations, but not for buskers and other street performers. Violators of the ordinance would be issued civil citations and fined.
Council members approved the ordinance on first reading last month. Similar ordinances passed in at least ten cities have been struck down by courts in recent years.