ACLU sues Boise over panhandling law

The measure violates First Amendment protections of free speech, the lawsuit says.

sberg@idahostatesman.comNovember 5, 2013 

Asking a friend for money to feed a parking meter could be a violation of Boise's new panhandling law, said Richard Eppink, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

Approaching passersby for money to support nonprofits — including the ACLU — could also be illegal, Eppink said. So could any request that slows down somebody about to cross a street.

That's if police apply the law as broadly and blindly as its language allows, Eppink said. Instead, he said he suspects the city will apply the panhandling ordinance selectively, and that's no better.

The city could use the law to push the homeless out of Downtown, Eppink continued, or even to discourage political activity such as campaigning for specific causes or candidates.

As a result, the ACLU of Idaho filed suit in U.S. District Court on Monday against the city's new ordinance, arguing that it's unconstitutional. The city has vowed to fight it.

The City Council passed the panhandling law in September. It makes asking for a donation or "other thing of value" a crime within 20 feet of a bank or ATM, street vendor, sidewalk cafe, valet area, bus stop, taxi stand or public restroom. The law also bans solicitation from pedestrians "whenever the pedestrian being solicited is or may be impeded from or delayed in crossing the roadway."

Proponents of the law, including Boise businesses and elected officials, said it will make the city safer and more enjoyable by reducing unwanted solicitations or requests for money.

In response to the lawsuit, the city released a brief statement Monday: "The ordinance was carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens' right to free speech. The city will defend the ordinance and is confident it will withstand this legal challenge."

Lauren McLean was the only member of the City Council to vote against the ordinance. In explaining her vote, McLean said the law goes beyond protection of business and the public. She worried it could make asking for signatures on a petition a crime.

The ACLU of Idaho isn't challenging the portion of the panhandling ordinance that makes solicitation through intimidation, unwanted physical contact and other aggressive means a misdemeanor.

The fundamental problem with the rest of the law is that it restricts what a person can say in certain public places around Boise, Eppink said.

"Public streets, sidewalks and parks have long been held by the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts to be the quintessential traditional public forums for speech," the ACLU of Idaho's lawsuit claims.

Boise men Troy Minton and Larry Shanks, both homeless, joined ACLU Idaho as plaintiffs in the case.

The ACLU has sued a variety of governments around the country that passed ordinances attempting similar regulation. In September, a federal appeals judge blocked a Michigan state law that banned panhandling in public places. A federal judge ruled that a similar law in Flagstaff, Ariz., was unconstitutional.

City Councilman David Eberle declined to comment on the ACLU of Idaho lawsuit, saying he needed time to read it and talk to the city's legal team first. Efforts to contact other council members were unsuccessful.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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