September 21, 2018 11:09:52 AM
The city of Starkville is looking to modify its transient vendor ordinance after receiving a notification from the American Civil Liberties Union that a prohibition on panhandling may be unconstitutional.
Aldermen unanimously approved setting two public hearings so the city can modify a line in its transient vendor ordinance that currently prohibits people from asking for monetary contributions, or "panhandling." The change removes a line City of Starkville Code Section 30-32, which regulates transient vendor activity in roadways, that reads: "It shall be unlawful for any person to peddle any goods, ware merchandise or services, or to solicit any contributions of any kind for any charitable, educational or other purpose, while standing in or upon any public roadway."
In late August, the ACLU notified Starkville and 15 other Mississippi cities demanding they repeal their bans on panhandling.
In a statement on its website, the ACLU said its demand, made in partnership with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, is based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
"Since the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, providing heightened protections for free speech rights, more than 25 laws attempting to ban panhandling have been found unconstitutional," the statement says. "It is our hope that the cities ... will place an immediate moratorium on enforcement of these ordinances, proceed with a rapid repeal and develop strategies that will lead to the best outcomes for all of the residents who live there, housed and un-housed like."
City Attorney Chris Latimer said cases since the Reed v. Town of Gilbert decision have generally fallen in line with the ACLU's description.
"The Reed case had to do with signage and said municipalities could not impose higher restricts on signage based on content-based reasons," Latimer said. "What we've seen since that time is that courts -- the Seventh Circuit is one, the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts is another -- are applying the Reed standard to transient vendors and panhandling and solicitation."
As such, Latimer said, the city removed the line from its code and added a line to the end of the section he said will maintain the intent of the section. The new line says: "Transient vendors shall not block or impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic on public roadways."
"We struck the first sentence that was overly broad, that talked about no solicitations or distributions or charitable asking of any kind while standing upon a public roadway because there may be a situation where that is protected speech," Latimer said. "So that's our effort to cure that provision."
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver asked Latimer if the provision would disallow people from soliciting in front of grocery stores or on corners. Latimer said that would be allowed, but noted Starkville Police Department would retain authority to address any instances that posed a threat to the public's health, safety and wellness.
In response to another question, Latimer said the ordinance does not address specific issues like tapping on windows, because the city is trying to determine what will be allowed under the Reed standard.
"What we're waiting on is for a national standard to emerge with regards to panhandling and solicitation and following that national standard and playing off of those other ordinances that are deemed constitutional," Latimer said. "As of right now, the issue before us is that first sentence is arguably unconstitutional, so we need to fix that."
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