ACLU: Everett Panhandling Proposals Are Unconstitutional and Unnecessary

News Release: 
Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The ACLU of Washington is urging the Everett City Council to reject proposals to restrict panhandling that it says are unconstitutional and unnecessary. The proposed amendments to city law are to be considered at a city council meeting this evening.

“Federal and state courts repeatedly have made it clear that asking for money in a traditional public forum such as a sidewalk is constitutionally protected free speech,” ACLU-WA deputy director Jennifer Shaw said in a letter (attached)  sent to Everett councilmembers today. “Washington courts have consistently upheld the right to display signs in traditional public forums, including sidewalks and parking strips.”

The ACLU urged that instead of adopting a flawed ordinance, Everett should focus on utilizing the tools it already has to address criminal behavior, and should allocate resources toward providing services for those in need.

The ACLU letter pointed to several flaws in the proposed amendments:

  • The proposal to criminalize certain activities within 60 feet of any traffic signal or on any median strip is an unconstitutional restriction on protected speech. Peacefully holding a sign on the sidewalk, even within 60 feet of a traffic signal, is protected by the Constitution.  
  • Under the proposal, many forms of speech would be allowed but asking for monetary help as an individual would be barred.
  • The proposal creates unnecessary distinctions between the types of signs or forms of communication used by the speaker: individuals cannot hold a sign encouraging an immediate exchange of money or objects, but they may hold a sign that encourages others to go to a website or physical address for the exchange. 
  • If the City is concerned with traffic interference or driver distractions, the ordinance should simply prohibit activity when it actually blocks vehicle or pedestrian traffic. Instead, the ordinance criminalizes someone passively holding a sign that asks for money. 

Yet, a person blaring music and dancing around with a sign advertising a car wash down the street that actually could actually distract drivers would not be punished by the ordinance.

The ACLU letter also noted that the restrictions imposed by the proposed ordinance are unnecessary. The City of Everett has at least two other ordinances at its disposal that specifically target conduct that interferes with traffic.