Lebanon, New Hampshire Mulls Panhandling Ordinance
There’s controversy brewing in Lebanon, New Hampshire about a move to ban panhandling in public places. The proposed ordinance is spurred by the occasional soliciting of motorists slowed or stopped along busy Route 12A.
But the American Civil Liberties Union says asking for money in public places is a form of free speech protected by the Constitution.
The Lebanon ordinance is needed, says Police Chief Gary Smith, because panhandlers are making travel dangerous in an area packed with malls and big box stores.
“There have been many complaints over the years from the public in regard to the traffic on 12A and these people entering and exiting the roadway and the safety factor,” Smith said.
Smith says people do have a right to hold up signs asking for money, but when they move into traffic to accept handouts through car windows, they are no longer just speaking; they are creating a hazard. So the ordinance bans, according to Smith, “the action of going into a roadway and taking or receiving something from a motor vehicle.”
"There have been many complaints over the years from the public in regard to the traffic on 12A and these people entering and exiting the roadway." - Lebanon Police Chief Gary Smith
“So it wouldn’t have to be panhandling? Somebody could walk in and say, 'Oh, here’s your lunch, honey, you forgot it.' That would also be banned?” we asked him.
“That’s right,” he said, “there are a few exceptions. One of those is if the vehicle is totally on private property. Another is if it’s parked legally.”
Still another exemption, one not usually found in anti-panhandling ordinances, lets city officials decide for themselves which groups will be targeted by the ordinance, and which could be allowed to accept things in roadways.
So, for example, a a fire department's coin drop might permitted, or a parade that involves tossing candy in the crowd.
Those exemptions are what trouble the Legal Director of New Hampshire’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties union, Giles Bissonnette.
"We just want to make sure that ordinances like these aren't used to suppress the speech of individuals who are really struggling in society, especially coming off a winter like this." - Giles Bissonnette, New Hampshire ACLU
“We do understand the public safety concerns that are being raised. We do think existing laws address those concerns, but we just want to make sure that ordinances like these aren’t used to suppress the speech of individuals who are really struggling in society, especially coming off a winter like this,” Bissonnette said.
The New Hampshire ACLU brought and settled a lawsuit against the town of Hudson on behalf of a homeless man who was prevented from panhandling. But that settlement does not allow solicitation that impedes traffic. In Vermont, Bennington has a panhandling ordinance, and the town of Berlin is considering drafting one. But Bissonnette, of the ACLU, says towns that go this route must be very careful to protect the right to solicit peacefully in public, for whatever reason.
“Not only do panhandlers have that right, but politicians have that right, petitioners have that right. So we need to be very vigilant that when it comes to peaceful speech, including soliciting speech in public places that’s peaceful, that it’s protected,” he said.
Lebanon Police Chief Smith says the ACLU is working with the town’s attorney to come up with an ordinance that will pass constitutional muster, and be fairly enforced.