The Times-Standard headline from March 18, 2010 could have been read two different ways: "Unlawful Panhandling Ordinance Passes Arcata City Council." Did it mean that the council passed an ordinance banning unlawful panhandling? Or was the ordinance itself against the law?
Perhaps inadvertently, the ambiguity of that headline perfectly encapsulated the contentious issues at play in Arcata's struggle to curtail widespread begging without trampling on freedom of speech. Less than a year after the ordinance was written into Arcata's municipal code, one resident is threatening to sue the city, saying the decree is indeed unlawful.
In a letter sent to city council members and staff last week on behalf of Arcata resident Richard Salzman, attorney Peter E. Martin described the restrictions as "embarrassingly broad" and "draconian."
The ordinance, which passed by a 3-2 vote, with council members Susan Ornelas and Shane Brinton dissenting, does not ban begging outright, though it does prohibit "aggressive" panhandling, including the use of profanity and intimidation. It also provides geographic restrictions, outlawing begging, for example, within 20 feet of ATMs, store entrances and bus stops.
It's the latter constraints that concern Salzman who says begging is akin to charitable solicitation, like Girl Scouts selling cookies, and is therefore protected by the First Amendment. His lawyer argues that banishing such activity to the outskirts of town "strikes at the very heart of discourse in a democratic society -- the right to communicate with one's fellow citizens on the public commons."
Many cities and courts have grappled with the panhandling issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that restrictions on speech in public areas must be "content-neutral," meaning such laws cannot favor one point of view over another, and they must be "narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest." Under these guidelines, restrictions on aggressive panhandling have routinely been upheld, while wider-reaching ordinances have seen mixed results. Last July, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to allow enforcement of a ban on panhandling at Los Angeles International Airport, much to the chagrin of the Hare Krishnas who'd sued the city. Conversely, a federal judge last month struck down an anti-pandhandling ordinance in Salt Lake City, Utah, saying it infringed on freedom of speech.
In his letter to the city of Arcata, Salzman's lawyer said his client would prefer to resolve the matter without litigation.