The American Civil Liberties Union is continuing its demand that the city of Greenwood repeal an ordinance that outlaws panhandling.
The Mississippi chapter of the nonprofit watchdog group sent out letters in August 2018 to 16 cities across the state, including Greenwood, to repeal or amend their panhandling laws, requesting a response by September.
Joshua Tom, the legal director of ACLU’s Mississippi chapter, said they received a letter from Don Brock, the city’s attorney, in October.
“He said the city has not and has no intention of enforcing the ordinance,” said Tom, who was also told that the city would decide in November whether to repeal the law.
Brock confirmed that he spoke with Tom last November, saying that the panhandling ordinance issue had been put on the back burner as more pressing issues emerged.
Eventually, Tom and the city stopped corresponding.
The city’s panhandling ordinance hasn’t changed since the ACLU sent the letter.
In Greenwood, panhandling is defined in the municipal code as “aggressive soliciting.” The ordinance prevents people from soliciting in “an aggressive manner in any public place,” as well as on private and residential property if the solicitor does not have the owner’s permission.
Additionally, it prevents people from soliciting within 20 feet of the entrance or exit of a financial institution or an automated teller machine.
The ACLU argues that barring people from panhandling is infringing upon their constitutional right to free speech, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the 2015 case Reed v. Town of Gilbert as the basis for its argument.
In 2005, the town of Gilbert, Arizona, adopted an ordinance that regulated the display of signs, imposing stricter regulations on signs for religious purposes than signs for other uses.
The plaintiff, Clyde Reed, the pastor of Good News Community Church, sued the city, claiming it had violated the church’s First Amendment rights after a code enforcement officer cited the church’s signs for violating the code.
The Supreme Court ruled against content-based restrictions on speech, arguing that they are subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level of judicial review, Tom said.
Tom said that of the 16 Mississippi cities the ACLU sent letters regarding repeals of panhandling laws, only three responded. Meridian and Ridgeland repealed their ordinances, and Starkville amended its ordinance.
For the other 13 cities, including Greenwood, Tom said the ACLU is continuing to monitor them to see if anyone has been arrested, jailed or affected in any way by an ordinance. It is providing an intake system for residents to file complaints to the ACLU.
According to Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams and Police Chief Ray Moore, Greenwood does not have a panhandling problem.
Moore said he cannot recall ever fining or jailing someone over panhandling in the more than two decades he’s been with the city’s Police Department.
Indeed, panhandling is not one of the numerous charges listed in the Police Department’s arrest book, which is updated daily.
Moore did say there are a few persons downtown and near Walmart who may warrant sending an officer to respond if they become a nuisance. Otherwise, “it’s not a major problem by any means,” he said.
McAdams agreed, saying, “We just don’t have an issue.”
Tom said that “it’s definitely great that they’re not enforcing it.” Still, he maintains that repealing the ordinance would make it clear “that panhandlers have a constitutional right to ask money on the streets” and noted that a subsequent city administration could choose to enforce the law.
Brock said he’ll reach out to Tom in the upcoming week to continue discussions about changing the city’s ordinance.
“We just need to clean up that part of the ordinance,” Brock said.
•Contact Gerard Edic at 581-7239 or firstname.lastname@example.org.