Worcester’s third anti-panhandling plan: unconstitutional

posted by Mike on November 9th, 2015

In a decision filed today, US District Court Judge Hillman found both parts of Worcester’s 2013 anti-panhandling plan unconstitutional. [PDF]

The only parts he left stand were the City redefining “traffic island” and a couple other similarly minor changes to Worcester ordinances.

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Ever since the Supreme Court vacated a previous ruling upholding the ordinances, I think we all figured that the time-and-place restrictions, which set up hundreds of areas in the city where you couldn’t ask for help, were probably unconstitutional. I didn’t think the judge would also rule against the traffic safety portion, which says that if a policeman tells you to stop standing around on a traffic island or in the road, you have to get moving. (He technically also struck down the part that deals with actual aggressive behavior, but as he notes there are many other laws against that sort of bad behavior.)

In striking down the first part of the ordinances, the judge writes:

…I find that the entirety of Ordinance 9-16 fails because it is not the least restrictive means available to protect the public and therefore, does not satisfy strict scrutiny. While I find that none of the provisions of Ordinance 9-16 can withstand strict scrutiny as written, the City and other municipalities have raised some legitimate concerns regarding aggressive panhandlers and public safety. Post Reed, municipalities must go back to the drafting board and craft solutions which recognize an individuals to continue to solicit in accordance with their rights under the First Amendment, while at the same time, ensuring that their conduct does not threaten their own safety, or that of those being solicited. In doing so, they must define with particularity the threat to public safety they seek to address, and then enact laws that precisely and narrowly restrict only that conduct which would constitute such a threat.

In striking down the traffic safety portion, he writes, quoting extensively from a ruling on a similar case in Maine:

The City can point to specific medians and traffic islands as to which a pedestrian use should be prohibited in the interest of public safety (the traffic islands and/or medians in Kelly, Newton and Washington Squares come to mind). However, on this record, it has not established the need for the “sweeping ban … it chose.” “ ‘In short, the City has not shown that it seriously undertook to address the problem with less intrusive tools readily available to it.’ Instead, it ‘sacrific[ed] speech for efficiency,’ and, in doing so, failed to observe the ‘close fit between ends and means’ that narrow tailoring demands.”

(Emphasis added and citations deleted above.)

Other coverage:

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Worcester Election Signs, 2015 (part two)

posted by Mike on September 7th, 2015

Some politicos tell me campaign signs are useless. Others tell me they’re a useful part of the overall strategy. Either way, they continue to fascinate me.
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Donna will leave Worcester’s Mustard Seed

posted by Mike on May 13th, 2015

Telegram & Gazette:

On June 1, Ms. Domiziano, an unpaid volunteer of nearly 30 years, will finally be leaving. However, her missive came not from God, she says, but a formal letter.

…The organization’s founders had, via a letter delivered by a local pastor, informed her of vital changes to the operation that would drastically limit her autonomy.

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Worcester Panhandling Update: the New York Times and the Supreme Court

posted by Mike on December 8th, 2014

It’s coming up on 2 years since Worcester passed its latest ordinance against begging.

I didn’t see any kids fundraising for little league over the summer. There still seem to be plenty of scruffy men with signs panhandling cars. I’m hoping we will soon get a report on the overall effects of the law.

The NYT today has a good roundup of the legal situation with the ordinance. The case may end up in front of the US Supreme Court.

A city ordinance enacted last year banned “aggressive begging,” but it used an idiosyncratic definition of what counts as aggressive. It encompasses any begging — including silently asking for spare change with a cup or a sign — as long as it is within 20 feet of a bank, bus stop, pay phone, theater, outdoor cafe or anywhere people are waiting in line.

The Supreme Court has said that asking for money is speech protected by the First Amendment. But in June, the federal appeals court in Boston rejected a challenge to the 20-foot buffer zones, saying they were justified by the unease that panhandling can cause.

A week later, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that had established 35-foot buffer zones around the state’s abortion clinics, including one in Worcester. The court said the law, which banned counseling, protests and other speech near the clinics, violated the First Amendment.

There was a tension between the two decisions, and lawyers for the plaintiffs in the begging case asked the appeals court to reconsider its ruling in light of the abortion case. The appeals court turned them down.

I appreciate the paper of record validating that our law is “idiosyncratic.”

Panhandling protest: the negative reactions

posted by Mike on February 14th, 2013

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City Councilor Konnie Lukes, in Worcester Magazine:

It was clearly a publicity stunt geared to embarrass police and the city. I’ll leave it to [the police department’s] judgment as to how they handle it.

Police Chief Gemme:

We were made aware that there would be a peaceful protest focusing on poverty and the panhandling ordinance. Based on the communication that we received from Saint Francis & Therese Catholic Worker, we know that the protesters are well aware of the ordinance and we gave them latitude to peacefully conduct their protest.

Our approach to panhandling has been stated publicly. Our focus has been on education and gaining voluntary compliance. If enforcement action is necessary, we will take it . . . But we will not make arrests for the sake of making arrests.

Today, between 1:00 PM and 2:00 PM there were 21 calls for service throughout the city. None of these calls were regarding panhandling. During this time period, we directed our limited resources where they were most needed. We used discretion to monitor the protest, and our decisions were made in the best interest of the entire community.

As much as I’d like to quibble with these words, I’m not going to do that, because the upshot of the city’s actions is so interesting.
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No arrests in Worcester panhandling civil disobedience

posted by Mike on February 13th, 2013

In an act of civil disobedience against Worcester’s new anti-panhandling ordinances, three Worcester residents today begged for money on the median in Lincoln Square, directly across from police headquarters. The event was held on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which Christians mark with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

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Gordon Davis, a blind anti-discrimination advocate, held a bucket reading BLIND and represented the disabled. Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, a Catholic Worker who has housed the homeless in Worcester for decades, was dressed as St. Francis, himself a beggar. Robert Peters, a long-time Buddhist meditator, dressed in the robes he wears as a lay Buddhist.

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At least four people called the police to complain. According to the supporters demonstrating legally on the nearby sidewalk, the only police response was one officer giving the thumbs-up when he drove by.

In a statement, Chief Gemme said that “Today, between 1 and 2 p.m. there were 21 calls for service throughout the city. None of these calls were regarding panhandling.” (I’m not sure what the difference is between a call for service and these calls. Maybe there were 21 911 issues?)

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None of the beggars was arrested, cited, or warned. “This is a victory for Worcester,” said Schaeffer-Duffy.

Womag has more pix. The T&G reports “$14.68 collected,” all of which will go directly to those in need.

Ash Wednesday protest: Repeal Worcester’s anti-panhandling ordinance

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on February 5th, 2013

On Ash Wednesday, February 13, from 1-2 pm, the Saints Francis & Thérèse Catholic Worker community will sponsor a protest at Lincoln Square in Worcester calling for the repeal of anti-panhandling regulations passed last week. Signs will be held and the attached leaflet will be distributed.

Robert Peters, a long-time practitioner of Buddhist mediation, will wear a monk’s attire and hold a beggar’s bowl.

Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, a one-time novice with the Capuchin-Franciscans, will wear a Franciscan habit and also carry a beggar’s bowl.

Robert will be on the sidewalk, while Scott will defy the anti-panhandling ordinance by begging on the median strip. Both of them hope to highlight the sacred place begging and giving to beggars has in all the world’s major religions.

The members of the Catholic Worker community have sent the attached letter to Worcester’s police chief, mayor, and all the city councilors describing their reasons for holding this protest. Any funds collected will be given directly to those who who continue to feel the need to appeal for help on the streets of Worcester. For more information, call Claire Schaeffer-Duffy 508 753-3588.
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Worcester City Council: yes on anti-panhandling plan #3

posted by Mike on January 29th, 2013

Last time they voted to “advertise” the anti-soliciting ordinances. This week was the final step of the process. Economou, Eddy, Germain, Lukes, Palmieri, Rushton, Russell, Toomey, and Petty voted yes. O’Brien and Rivera voted no.

The City Manager reiterated his confidence that the city’s lawyers did a good job drafting this and the city won’t lose a lawsuit over it. He also said that outreach workers have talked to frequent solicitors and they know about the ordinances and penalties.

The Council asked for a report in 30 days about how enforcement is going.

The Telegram & Gazette, in an article today, outlined the time-and-place restrictions in this plan, those being the parts that have generated the most controversy yet have not been discussed in public by the Council or mentioned (until today) in traditional media. Since they Council didn’t debate the specifics of the plan, just asked some questions about implementation and reporting, they didn’t use this final opportunity to answer the concerns. Maybe I’m naive, but this still amazes me.

Update: Here’s a photo of a handout on the ordinance. It doesn’t mention the many time and place restrictions. Odd.

Worcester City Council approves anti-panhandling plan #3

posted by Mike on January 16th, 2013

Last night the Worcester City Council voted in favor of its third anti-panhandling plan in recent years. Councilors O’Brien and Rivera voted no; Councilor Germain was absent.

This plan has three parts: discouraging people from running into traffic, discouraging “aggressive” behavior while begging, and banning asking for help in various times and places.

The time-and-place restrictions are the ones that have had me, the ACLU, and other residents up in arms over this plan. Once again, the City Councilors completely ignored the time-and-place restrictions in their discussions. I even began the public comment section by giving chapter-and-verse on these sections, and directly asking them to be addressed, but to no avail. This disregard was even more amazing after Konnie Lukes berated the audience for not reading the ordinances, and then Rick Rushton explained the ordinances completely backwards, saying soliciting on sidewalks would not be affected, whereas an entire third of this plan, conceptually, is about restricting times and places of soliciting on sidewalks. I am a little discouraged but mostly amazed.

Worcester Magazine has notes.

Worcester’s third anti-panhandling plan: Joint Committee votes yes

posted by Mike on January 5th, 2013

This week the Worcester City Council Joint Public Health and Human Services and Municipal Operations Committee met to discuss Worcester’s third proposed anti-panhandling plan. These measures would affect men who stand on street corners holding signs, people asking for a quarter on the street, and kids and non-profits soliciting donations at intersections.

There are three kinds of restrictions in the proposed set of ordinances.

  1. The first try to keep people from wandering on traffic islands and in the road.
  2. The second try to keep people from being persistent or scary in their soliciting.
  3. The third name times and places in which soliciting is banned. These would include after dusk, from people walking, near ATMs, near entrances to buildings, near bus stops, near restaurants with outdoor seating, and any “place of public assembly.”

At the Joint Committee meeting, various representatives of businesses and business groups spoke in favor of some action on panhandling, though not so much the specific proposals. Other people spoke against the proposals, specifically the third kind of time-and-place restrictions, as being objectionable on civil liberties or ethical grounds, or as making Worcester a slightly-less-human city.

The Councilors, Deputy City Manager, and City Solicitor then spoke thoughtfully and compassionately about the first 2 kinds of restrictions and didn’t mention the third at all, before voting (with one dissent) to send these proposals to the full City Council for a vote. (That vote could happen as early as the January 15 City Council meeting.)

When I confronted one Councilor about this after the meeting, the Councilor at first denied that the third kind of restriction was in the proposals at all, then expressed surprise upon seeing that it was.

I’ve emailed the other Joint Committee members about this, on the chance that they’d also voted on a proposal they hadn’t read, but there’s been no comment from them.

I hope that the Councilors and Solicitor will discuss the time-and-place restrictions when this comes before the full Council, because some of the phrases in there sound kinda extreme to a layman (“all . . . places of public assembly”) but might have a less-extreme legal meaning.

Here’s the text of my remarks to the Council, followed by some Twitter notes from the meeting. If you’d like to see a less-snarky collection of notes, Worcester Magazine also live-blogged it.
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