NEW ORLEANS — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against a New Orleans-area mayor charging his passage of an ordinance requiring panhandlers to have permits they wear around their necks while soliciting is a violation of free speech rights.
According to The Advocate, the petition, which was filed in U.S. District Court of New Orleans in December, names Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan and interim Police Chief Eugene Howard as defendants, as well as the city of Slidell.
While admitting that they routinely “walk from their areas of residence to locations within the city limits, typically high-traffic intersections and they solicit alms from passersby,” plaintiffs David Knight, Daniel Snyder and Gary Blitch allege they were admonished to get a permit or a job, and were threatened with jail time for noncompliance.
Snyder added that his subsequent attempts to get the officer’s involved badge numbers near Gause Boulevard on the morning of Nov. 17 were rebuffed, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, with the officer involved driving away from the scene.
ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman said such actions are unacceptable and should not be tolerated.
“Not only is begging protected speech, Slidell’s public streets, like all public streets, are traditional public forums in which any content-based regulation of speech is presumptively invalid,” she said in a statement released to The Louisiana Record.
City officials first moved to pass the legislation in question last July, billing it as an attempt to ensure the safety of both panhandlers and drivers. Under the letter of the law, panhandlers must apply for the free permit at least 48 hours before they can take to the streets to solicit.
Going through the channels of applying for the permits allows city officials the right and opportunity to conduct full criminal background checks on all the applicants.
ACLU officials immediately announced their opposition to the measure, charging it is unconstitutional, though police authorities insist they have not yet moved to enforce the law as they await the formal installation of the new police chief, Randy Fandal, who is on record as planning to sit down with the city attorney and discuss the particulars of the ordinance.
“We request that the city of Slidell immediately discontinue enforcement of this unlawful ordinance, terminate any and all pending prosecutions and expunge all arrests under the records of anyone unlawfully arrested under the ordinance, and repeal this ordinance as quickly as possible,” Esman added. “We reserve the right to take appropriate action without further notice to the city of Slidell.”
A recent National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty analysis finds the number of local governments cracking down on panhandling is growing at a rapid rate, with an additional 25 percent of all cities imposing related bans from between 2011 and 2014.
Overall, the report concluded that the number of cities with restrictions on begging in specified public places having jumped by at least 20 percent over that time.