A ban on panhandling in Greenwood, which a nonprofit watchdog group argues is unconstitutional, may soon be removed from the city’s code of ordinances.
Mayor Carolyn McAdams says the City Council will be presented a resolution for a vote on Tuesday that would repeal the city’s ban on panhandling.
The American Civil Liberties Union has asked for the ban’s repeal, saying it restricts the right to free speech. The ACLU’s argument is based on a decision the U.S. Supreme Court made five years ago.
Defined in the city’s code of ordinances as “aggressive soliciting,” the ban forbids people from asking for money within the city “in an aggressive manner in any public place,” as well as within 20 feet of a public restroom, at the entrances and exits of financial institutions and automated teller machines and on private and residential property if the solicitor does not have permission from the owner.
Soliciting in an “aggressive manner” as defined by the ordinance includes following someone who has said “no,” touching them or using a loud voice.
In August 2018, the ACLU’s Mississippi chapter, in a joint campaign with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, sent out letters to 16 municipalities throughout the state, including Greenwood, requesting that they repeal existing laws that banned panhandling.
The ACLU cited a decision from a 2015 Supreme Court case, Reed v. Gilbert, in which the nation’s highest court ruled against content-based restrictions on speech, saying that they are subject to strict scrutiny — which is the highest level of judicial review.
The case involved an ordinance in Gilbert, Arizona. In 2005, the town adopted an ordinance that regulated the display of signs and imposed stricter regulations on religious signage than signs for other purposes.
A pastor named Clyde Reed sued the city and argued that the church’s First Amendment rights were violated after a code enforcement officer cited the church for signs for violating the code.
Soliciting money in a peaceful manner is considered free speech, the ACLU explained in its letter to Greenwood officials. It also noted that numerous city ordinances banning panhandling have been found unconstitutional in federal courts following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Reed v. Gilbert.
Joshua Tom, the legal director for the Mississippi chapter of ACLU, and Don Brock, the city’s attorney, had been in conversation concerning the city’s panhandling ordinance.
Tom has said he was told by Brock that the city had not enforced the ordinance and had no intentions of enforcing it.
Panhandling is neither listed as one of the numerous charges found in the Police Department’s arrest book, which is updated daily, nor listed among cases in the Municipal Court’s dockets.
McAdams also has said Greenwood doesn’t have a panhandling problem.
However, Tom said it’s not wise “to have an unconstitutional ordinance on your books at all” and that “a subsequent administration could start enforcing those ordinances and subject the city of Greenwood to potential litigation for doing so.”
Furthermore, given the current nationwide debates on policing, Tom said that it’s relevant to question the use of policing on solving issues of homelessness and poverty since it seems that method is “not only unconstitutional, it’s an ineffective policy and a waste of taxpayer’s money.”
The ACLU sent two follow-up emails to McAdams last year — one in July and one in August — again requesting that the city repeal its panhandling ban.
During its Aug. 20, 2019, meeting, the City Council, at the recommendation of Brock, agreed to study the issue of repealing the city’s panhandling ban before voting on the matter.
A resolution to repeal the anti-panhandling ordinance was drafted last year, but the council never voted on it.
The resolution, which McAdams shared Thursday, mentions the 2015 Supreme Court ruling and says it would be in the best interest of the citizens of Greenwood to repeal the ordinance.
Tom said the cities of Southaven, Meridian, Olive Branch, Ridgeland, Starkville Vicksburg, Brandon and Corinth have either repealed or amended their ordinances on panhandling.
The Clarion-Ledger reported Monday that the city of Jackson is considering removing all references to panhandling in its code of ordinances following pressure from the ACLU and other organizations.
• Contact Gerard Edic at 581-7239 or firstname.lastname@example.org.