As expected, the ACLU of Florida filed suit against the City of Pensacola on Wednesday, challenging the legality of a controversial anti-panhandling law passed by city council members last week.
The ordinance will 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, from Wright Street south to the bay. In addition to panhandlers, street performers and charitable organizations would also be barred from asking for donations. There won’t be any criminal penalties for violations of the new ordinance; instead, violators will be issued civil citations and fined.
But the ACLU is arguing that the law, set to go into effect on Thursday, violates the free speech and due process rights of those who would be affected by it.
“We repeatedly warned the city council that this ordinance was unconstitutional,” stated Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “The city council can’t outlaw certain kinds of speech just because hearing it could make some people uncomfortable. Courts throughout the country, including in Florida, have been abundantly clear about the unconstitutionality of these laws. We had worked to avoid litigation, but when this cruel and unjust law was passed, we had to take action before it went into effect to protect the rights of the city’s most vulnerable citizens, street performers, and charitable groups.”
In the suit, the ACLU is representing Food Not Bombs, a volunteer organization which feeds the homeless, as well as retired nurse Caterina Cardwell and musician Nathan Marona. On their behalf, the ACLU is asking the court to not only find the anti-panhandling ordinance to be unconstitutional, but to issue an order preventing the law from being enforced before it goes into effect.
“A person doesn’t lose their right to free speech or due process simply because they need help getting by, and not all problems that a city faces can be solved by law enforcement,” stated ACLU of Florida northern regional director Sara Latshaw. “By treating needy members of the community or charity organizations like a nuisance, the city council fails to address the needs of its citizens. Rather than violate people’s rights with a policy they knew has been repeatedly found unconstitutional, the city council should work to find viable solutions for the issue of poverty in our community.”
The ACLU has successfully challenged similar panhandling laws in multiple states, and is currently involved in legal challenges to anti-panhandling laws in cities including Cleveland, Ohio and Belton, Missouri.
Pensacola city spokesman Vernon Stewart said Wednesday that the city hadn’t yet been served with the suit and wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.