Sensible rules can restrict panhandling

When the Grand Junction City Council this evening takes up a proposed ordinance to regulate panhandling within the city, it will do so with a threat from the American Civil Liberties Union hanging over the ordinance.

Although the ACLU of Colorado hasn’t said it will sue if the council adopts the ordinance, it has said in a letter to the city that the proposed ordinance is overly broad and that it would criminalize activities protected under the First Amendment.

We respectfully disagree with the ACLU regarding most of the ordinance. We think it does a good job of protecting those free speech rights while also protecting average citizens from aggressive or inappropriate panhandling.

Anti-panhandling ordinances have been adopted all over the country, and many of them have been challenged in court. Some have been overturned, especially those that attempted to implement a blanket ban on panhandling or public begging. Basically, courts have said people have the right to quietly hold a sign asking for money or to ask individuals for money in a nonthreatening manner.

But state and federal courts have recognized the legitimacy of regulations that place reasonable limits on the time, place and manner of panhandling. That’s what the proposed city ordinance would do. It would establish citations and set fines for those who violate its provisions.

The ordinance to be discussed tonight would prohibit people from panhandling if they knowingly do so in a manner that is “intimidating, threatening, coercive or obscene and that causes the person solicited to reasonably fear for his or her safety.”

It would prohibit a beggar from using fighting words, from touching or grabbing a person being solicited and from continuing to request money from someone who has said, “No.”

Additionally, it would ban panhandling within 100 feet of an ATM machine or bus stop, on a bus or in a parking facility. It would also prohibit panhandlers from soliciting money from people seated at outdoor restaurant patios. And it would continue rules on how they may seek money along a roadside.

The two most disputed provisions include one that would prohibit panhandling from dusk to dawn and another that would ban solicitations of “at-risk” individuals — people under age 16, over 70 or those with mental and physical impairments.

Prohibiting panhandling during hours of darkness is an appropriate time restriction that other communities have enacted. Soliciting after dark presents more safety issues.

However, the language regarding “at-risk” individuals may need a descriptive modifier or more significant changes.

The bulk of the proposed ordinance represents sensible time, place and manner restrictions on panhandling. As councilors consider it tonight, we don’t believe they should fear that it is an unconstitutional abridgment of panhandlers’ First Amendment rights.


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