State Headliners: Is panhandling free speech? ACLU thinks so

By Guy Page

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont says panhandling is free speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The civil liberties organization has threatened to sue Brattleboro and five other municipalities if their anti-panhandling ordinances are not repealed.

A Brattleboro town ordinance states: “No person shall beg in or upon a street or other public place within the town. A person who violates this section shall be removed immediately by an officer, sheriff, deputy sheriff, or state police.”

But a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholds free speech protections for panhandling, so the ordinance must go, the ACLU-VT told Brattleboro in an Aug. 28 letter:

“At least 31 additional cities, including Vermont’s own City of Burlington, have repealed their panhandling ordinances when informed of the likely infringement on First Amendment rights. the Town’s ordinance not only almost certainly violates the constitutional right to free speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is also bad policy….We call on the Town to immediately repeal the Ordinance, end any enforcement practices related to it, and instead consider more constructive alternatives or risk potential litigation.”

Officials in the progressive-minded Windham County town are miffed.

“It is beyond disappointing that the ACLU’s news release today stated that ‘some [municipalities], like Brattleboro, have recently increased enforcement, creating additional hardship for impoverished Vermonters’ and that your letter describes [the Brattleboro Police Department’s] conduct in a manner that is not only untrue, but actually is exactly the opposite of the approach that BPD and the entire town government have taken to addressing this unfortunate situation,” Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote the ACLU-VT, the Brattleboro Reformer reported Aug. 29.

In fact, police merely encourage panhandlers to access food shelfs and other forms of public assistance, officials there say. The socially-sensitive town select board wouldn’t even support a mildly-worded flyer affirming the right to panhandle but warning that “aggressive behavior can cause these activities to become illegal.”

The ACLU-VT letter is part of a statewide and national campaign. Similar letters were sent to Bennington, Rutland Town, Winooski, Barre Town, and Montpelier. Nationwide, 240 municipalities have been approached for their anti-panhandling ordinances.

Brattleboro isn’t the only town where some people are concerned about panhandlers’ behavior. Earlier this year, H.412, the “Homeless Bill of Rights” died in the House Housing, General and Military Affairs Committee because business and municipal interest groups worried it might provide legal cover for panhandling transients to bother shoppers and merchants.

Free speech advocates counter public dislike for panhandling by saying the First Amendment exists because our Founders knew it would be necessary to protect socially unpopular speech. The same First Amendment that protects panhandlers today may protect (for example) unpopular expressions of so-called “hate speech” tomorrow. In fact, the 2015 case cited by the ACLU-VT, Reed V. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, specifically upheld the rights of a church to post signs about church meetings in the face of a hostile municipality. Since then, however, Reed has been construed as supporting the right panhandle in public.

Besides the perceived threat to free speech, the public’s interest in panhandling is interwoven with at least three other policy challenges: the addiction crisis, the affordable housing shortage, and the proposed legalization of “tax and regulate” marijuana.

Despite record-low unemployment (2.8 percent), homelessness in Vermont is on the rise. The State’s annual one-night “count” of 1,291 rose 5 percent in 2018 over 2017, which was up 11 percent over 2016. Two oft-cited causes are addiction and the high cost of housing.

Colorado has seen a large influx of “stoner” homeless people attracted there by the state’s “tax and regulate” marijuana legalization. One sheriff said that 1 in 3 incarcerated people were transients. If Vermont legalizes commercial pot, it too can expect a similar influx.

Every Freedom Friday, State House Headliners and the Vermont Daily Chronicle examine ongoing public disputes about freedoms recognized in the Vermont and U.S. Constitutions.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/The Accent

6 thoughts on “State Headliners: Is panhandling free speech? ACLU thinks so

  1. They think PAC money is free speech too, we think it’s just bribe money and a few years ago comedians lampooned the idea, it’s a bad idea.

    Why do some rich people from out of state get to have so much “free speech” in our Vermont elections? They don’t live here, they can’t vote here. We strive to eliminate PAC money and out of state lobbyist influence by taxing it 90% if we can out right eliminate it. There is an 8 point plan in Vermont, maybe if we addressed the affordability issue, we wouldn’t have so much homelessness. Boarding homes could easily provide a nice place to live for $200 per month. We can have home owner ship for $600 per month, Vermont just won’t allow it. There is an 8 point plan out there.

    Neil Johnson Washington-7 Candidate for House, Gr33n Mountain Party.

  2. While panhandling may be an exercise of free speech, obstructing and interfering with traffic is not. Public safety trumps free speech. You cannot stand in the middle of a highway including on the edges of traffic lanes & attempt to exercise freedom of speech by stopping & interfering with traffic flow.
    Some attorneys here in Vermont have looked too closely at a situation & missed the big picture. They did so when Cabot was driven out of our State & with it the free advertising with a map of our state that had appeared in grocery cabinets throughout the eastern United States.
    As a matter of Public Safety, you cannot stand in the road & interfere with traffic flow while vehicles slow down & stop to read your sign or give you a donation. Tread marks on a carcass are not a testament to a right to free speech, they are a testament to the reason why panhandlers on public highways and driveways should be illegal. Protect Public Safety!!!

  3. Still waiting for the ACLU to jump into the fight to defend my 2nd Amendment rights which are being infringed upon all over the country. …………………..crickets……………………………..
    Love the way liberals pick and choose which freedoms they think are worth defending.
    Sick to death of these tattooed, cigarette smoking, bums, standing at every intersection interfering with traffic, and drinking a large container of Dunkin Donuts iced coffee, while holding a sign telling me that they are hungry, within sight of at least 5 help wanted signs on local businesses.
    At the very least they should be banned from entering the traveled portion of any highway as they present a traffic hazard and a danger to themselves and others.

    • Hi Dave,
      the truth is that ACLU doesn’t give a “whit” about citizens’ 2d Amendment rights. Those who own guns are on the wrong side of the debate and have the wrong politics. However, if you want to stand on the street corner or in the middle of the road and harass citizens for money or even threaten or attack them for money, the ACLU loves them and wants them to be able to do whatever they want. Vermont, just like the rest of this country, is going to Hell faster every day. People who work hard, raise good families, obey the law, and salute the flag and stand for the national anthem are not wanted anymore. We are all superfluous, just like certain groups became the “unwanted’s” in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s China. And we all know what happened to them, don’t we?

  4. State Headliners:Is panhandling free speech? ACLU thinks so !!! What it is, is a scourge on society.

    From what I have seen in my travels, they either fall into two groups. Too lazy to work at a real job
    with discipline or they need to be placed in some sort of “Alcohol or Drug” rehabilitation facility.

    It’s a shame when you’re on your way to work and these people stop traffic ( Safety Concern )
    Or since this appears to be their job (Tax-Free) money or ( see above statement ) why don’t
    they need a permit at the daily locations and pay taxes like the rest of us ??

    What about the homeless person the sits at the Burling Public Works ( 652 Pine St ) at the
    front door every day, have City Officials lost all respect for it’s Citizens & Contractors that
    need to venture into the City offices to do business………..Shameful !!

    Free Speech, yeah what a joke…… ACLU should try helping these people instead of wasting
    time on frivolous lawsuits for an agenda !!

    One last note, for all the ” bleeding hearts ” that give these panhandlers ” Money ” your not
    helping them, you’re promoting their lifestyle & habits !!

  5. Panhandling in my book has nothing to do with free speech. When someone is panhandling, they are invading another persons space. I wonder how the ACLU would feel if I sat on a corner and asked every person that walked by if they were wearing underwear. I doubt if they would approve but isn’t that free speech? Most of the panhandlers that are here are from out of State. Most are fully able to work, they just choose not to. It should be outlawed, period..

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