Pensacola city council members voted unanimously Thursday night to repeal a controversial ordinance banning panhandlers within the city’s downtown core.
The vote was 5-0, with council members Brian Spencer and Larry B. Johnson absent from the meeting.
The law — which council members narrowly approved in May — made it illegal for anyone to ask for a donation, either verbally or by holding up a sign, within a roughly 40-block section of the city’s downtown. While aimed at panhandlers, the ban also impacted street performers and charitable organizations like the Salvation Army.
The law drew an almost immediate legal challenge from the ACLU of Florida, which filed a federal lawsuit just days after the ordinance was approved, arguing that the ordinance is unconstitutional and infringes on free speech rights. City officials later agreed not to enforce the law until the lawsuit was resolved.
Council members previously voted in June to repeal the ordinance, but a second and final vote on repeal in July was postponed for 60 days after Councilman Johnson said he had additional questions about the status of the ACLU lawsuit.
“We warned the city that we would sue if they attempted to implement this unconstitutional ordinance, they did it anyway, we sued, and now thankfully, they’re backing down,” said ACLU staff attorney Jacqueline Azis in a statement following Thursday’s meeting. “Cities shouldn’t use law enforcement as a tool to address homelessness and poverty, and courts across the country have made clear that they can’t ban certain kinds of speech, like panhandling, simply because they might make some people uncomfortable.”
Azis said the ACLU will now file a motion to dismiss the suit.
“We had worked to avoid litigation in this case, and now that this ordinance no longer poses a threat to the people of Pensacola, we will immediately work to end that case,” Azis said. “We are glad that the city council has walked back this wrong-headed ordinance, and we hope that this serves as an object lesson for other Florida cities about the fact that the Constitution protects everyone, including those who are least fortunate in our communities.”