Supreme Court vacates Worcester panhandling ruling

posted by Mike on June 29th, 2015

The US Supreme Court has told the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that the lower court made a wrong decision in upholding Worcester’s 2013 anti-panhandling ordinances.

Supreme Court of the United States [PDF]:

The motion of Homeless Empowerment Project for leave to file a brief as amicus curiae is granted. The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit for further consideration in light of Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U. S. ___ (2015).


When the Court “GVRs,” it “grants certiorari,” “vacates” the decision below, and “remands” a case to the lower court without hearing oral argument or deciding its merits. A GVR order is not accompanied by a written opinion addressing the merits of the case, but the Court usually provides some direction to the lower court by, for example, instructing it to reconsider its decision in light of a recent decision by the Supreme Court.

The anti-begging ordinances, which began being enforced in February 2013, have stopped kids from holding fundraising events on street corners, but don’t seem to have cut down on the number of down-and-out adults panhandling in those same spots.

Part of Worcester’s anti-panhandling package discouraged people from wandering on traffic islands and in the road; part tried to keep people from being persistent or scary in their soliciting; another part set up hundreds of “no begging” zones around bus stops, ATMs, and doors. This court case focuses on the third set of ordinances, those establishing buffer zones for certain kinds of speech (asking for money or other things of value).

Reed v. Town of Gilbert held that certain “content-based regulations of speech” were not allowed.

For what it’s worth, I remain mildly opposed to the anti-begging ordinances and majorly opposed to the shoddy process through which they were enacted.


The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert confirms that laws regulating speech are subject to the strictest scrutiny when they hinge on the content of the speech. And the Supreme Court’s decision in McCullen v. Coakley holds that buffer zones banning speech are rarely if ever constitutional.

How, in light of those decisions, can Worcester enforce hundreds or thousands of buffer zones that prohibit begging but do not prohibit other kinds of speech? The answer is that Worcester absolutely cannot do that.

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