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.”

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