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ACLU discusses panhandling restrictions on Downtown Mall

Charlottesville City Council and the American Civil Liberties Union Wednesday went before a judge in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to discuss panhandling restrictions at the Downtown Mall.

The ACLU originally filed the case with the Charlottesville Federal District Court in January on behalf of five homeless men. The men believe the ordinances, which restrict solicitation on the Downtown Mall, violate their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, according to the complaint. ACLU attorney Jeff Fogel said the case argued Wednesday challenges the earlier suit’s dismissal.

Fogel said this ordinance discriminates against some types of free speech and not others.

At issue during Wednesday’s session before the court was whether the judge was wrong to consider information from the Downtown Business Association, a group Fogel said has been hostile to panhandlers, without giving the five homeless men a chance to challenge it.

The City contends it is only against aggressive solicitation. “People have a constitutional right to free speech,” Dickler said. “There is no constitutional right to being aggressive.”

The City has considered strengthening its panhandling ordinances in recent weeks, but Dickler said no progress had been made so far.

“What’s happening now is a conversation,” Dickler said. “The only changes that would be made would be … creating an area 10 feet from buildings [in which lying down would be prohibited, or] possibly something that would restrict sleeping and laying down in [the mall] area.”

The ACLU felt the arguments were well-received in court Wednesday, Fogel said. “They seemed dubious that it was appropriate to dismiss the case without giving us the chance to challenge,” he said.

Dickler declined to comment on the status of the trial on behalf of the City.

Fogel said he expects a decision from the court in three to four weeks. If this appeal is rejected, the ACLU plans to file another appeal with different complaints.

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