Arcata vs. panhandlers


The city of Arcata, just north of Eureka in Humboldt County, has long been a mecca for homeless and transient young people who gather in its public square, often soliciting food or money. But after years of allowing their public begging, the city passed an ordinance in 2010 that forbids not only “aggressive panhandling” — touching or blocking a person, repeatedly asking for money, using abusive language, approaching an occupied vehicle — but all soliciting within 20 feet of ATMs, supermarkets, retail stores, restaurants, bus shelters and stops, and any intersection. It also prohibits soliciting on a bus, inside public parking lots and on pedestrian foot bridges. The city defines panhandling as asking for money or goods or even holding up a sign requesting a handout. The result is effectively a ban on begging in the commercial area of Arcata.

The city’s frustration is understandable, but its remedy is too broad and too punitive, emblematic of the excesses that many municipalities succumb to in confronting the unsightly but all too human problems associated with panhandling.

A lawsuit filed last year — which is expected to be ruled on soon — argues that the ordinance violates 1st Amendment rights because it is “constitutionally overbroad.” It is so vague that it prohibits displaying a sign asking for money, and so broad that Girl Scouts couldn’t set up a table outside a supermarket to sell cookies.

PHOTOS: Panhandling in Arcata

Aggressive panhandling is another matter. When asking for money becomes intimidating, speech drifts into conduct, and governments have the right to rein it in. The lawsuit takes no issue with that portion of the ordinance.

The city is also, arguably, acting in the interest of protecting public safety when it forbids panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM or in semi-confined spaces such as a pedestrian bridge or a parking structure. In these cases, there is a possibility that those who are hit up for money will feel trapped or vulnerable. People should not be forced to walk a gantlet of panhandlers when they must use a bridge. Although this part of the Arcata ordinance may not pass the so-called captive audience rule (courts have recognized that public transit vehicles are not free-speech forums), it seems reasonable.

Yes, it can be irritating to be confronted by poverty while exiting a store, but the tender sensibilities of shoppers cannot be allowed to outweigh the rights of Americans to express themselves, even if it’s to ask for money.