NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: ACLU lawsuit against panhandling law must result in correct interpretation of freedom of speech

It is common in Fort Wayne and other cities in Indiana to see people standing by the side of the road at intersections with a cardboard sign saying they are homeless and asking for money.

In many Hoosier cities pedestrians walking downtown may be directly approached by homeless people asking for money, and that situation prompted actions that resulted in a law passed this spring by the State Legislature that tightens Indiana’s restrictions on panhandling. The measure was signed into law by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb on March 21 despite warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana that it was unconstitutional and would criminalize poverty.

Thursday, the Indiana ACLU filed a federal lawsuit that seeks to block that law, saying it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We strongly support freedom of speech and trust the courts will correctly interpret the Constitution as it relates to this new state law that is set to take effect July 1.

The lawsuit contends it would prohibit most forms of financial solicitation by individuals and groups in the downtowns of Indiana’s cities by expanding the areas where panhandling is barred.

Current Indiana law includes a provision barring people from asking for money within 20 feet of an ATM or the entrance to a bank.

But the General Assembly passed legislation in March that would make panhandling illegal within 50 feet of any ATM; entrance or exit of a bank, business or restaurant; public monument; or place where any “financial transaction” occurs.

And a “financial transaction” means any exchange of money, including parking meters. That pretty much pushes panhandling out of town.

The measure, which, according to an article on indianalawyer.com, was targeted at Indianapolis but would apply statewide, is strongly supported by the Indy Chamber, Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association and Visit Indy because local officials believe the issue is damaging tourism and economic development.

The article quoted former House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, author of the bill, who said he has heard stories from those attending conferences held in Indianapolis telling of unpleasant encounters when they were aggressively approached for money.

“They love the city,” Bosma said, “but they’re not coming back, and the reason was the panhandling situation.”

But Ken Falk, the Indiana ACLU’s legal director, said, “This panhandling ban is an unconstitutional attack on free speech.” In a news release he said the new restrictions will leave “virtually no sidewalks in downtown Indianapolis or any downtown area in any Indiana city where people can engage in this activity which courts have recognized is protected by the First Amendment.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, seeks a temporary injunction to block the law from taking effect. It argues that the law “targets particular First Amendment expression in a flagrantly broad, vague, and unconstitutional manner.”

There have been many lawsuits filed against cities and states for their laws against panhandling, which are typically designed to force panhandlers away from high traffic areas, or out of cities entirely. The ACLU maintains that the laws punish the poor, since other individuals and organizations are able to advertise and collect money for organizations in the same locations homeless individuals will be cited.

Supporters, however, say the language in the new Indiana law is similar to laws in other states that have survived court challenges.

In order for the government to prohibit constitutionally protected actions in “public forums” such as sidewalks and public roadways, its reasoning must not discriminate against specific groups. As one legal blogger wrote, “while a ban on panhandling at a highway on-ramp might be reasonable for safety’s sake, that’s not likely to be the case at a stoplight, or on a sidewalk.”

We hope the lawsuit by the Indiana ACLU results in a proper interpretation of the Constitution in order to protect the broader freedom of speech as it applies to all of us, including those asking for help.


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