Lawsuit protests Charlottesville's panhandling ban

Lawyer, five clients contend restrictions threaten First Amendment rights


A lawsuit challenging Charlottesville’s ban on panhandling on the Downtown Mall within 50 feet of cross streets may go forward, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday. The decision overturns a U.S. District Court dismissal of the lawsuit in January 2012.

The lawsuit challenges two parts of the City’s ordinance against panhandling, or what the Appeals Court’s decision calls “solicitation.” The law prohibits “beggars” from soliciting any person seated within an outdoor café area, and from soliciting on the Downtown Mall within 50 feet of Second Street and Fourth Street, said Jeffrey Fogel, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney for five homeless people challenging the law.

Fogel and his five clients argue these sections of the ordinance violate their First Amendment rights.

“[The] ordinance is not constitutional just by looking at the face of it,” Fogel said. Several kinds of soliciting are allowed, however, including inquiring for directions or asking for signatures in a political campaign. The ordinance only specifically prohibits solicitation of money or things of value.

Fogel said those exceptions do not change the law’s constitutionality.

“[A] public body cannot tell you what you can talk about,” Fogel said. “What the government can almost never do is to say, ‘you can talk about this, but you can’t talk about that.’”

In the Court’s decision, Justice Allyson Duncan said the arguments Fogel put forth raised prudent concerns about the legitimacy of the regulation on free speech.

“We are unable at this point to accept the City’s possible justifications over the plausible censorial purpose alleged by Appellants,” Duncan wrote.

When the regulation was implemented in 2010, city officials said it was partly an effort to improve pedestrian safety by reducing the distractions for drivers in the area.

Fogel said the idea that beggars are to blame for distracting drivers is ridiculous. “There are a million things that can distract motorists that aren’t beggars,” he said. “What if I hold up a sign with a naked lady on it? … What about signs for movie or book festivals?”

The case will now return to a District Court judge, once the city files a formal response to the Appeals Court decision. The judge can then decide to rule on the case or move it to trial. The process could take an additional three or four months, Fogel said.

Authorities from the City of Charlottesville would not comment on the pending court case.

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