In case you haven't heard, the city is currently hard at work deciding whether or not to ban panhandling in the core downtown area.
This is, obviously, a controversial issue. Some see banning panhandling as akin to banning poverty. But, as the recession continues and panhandlers become more pervasive and aggressive, others see a ban as necessary to preserve safety and the downtown's economy.
Assuming the city moves forward with a ban, there could be legal trouble ahead. Panhandling is, after all, speech. And speech is protected by the First Amendment.
It's easy to see parallels between panhandling bans and other hot-button free speech issues, which generally involve activities that aren't socially acceptable — think flag burning, pornography, swearing on TV, and Fred Phelps (and his anti-"fag" military funeral protests). Courts have often ruled that just because the public doesn't like the speech doesn't mean they can ban someone from saying it.
Panhandling, however, hasn't been viewed as strictly by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court has allowed some limited bans. City Attorney Chris Melcher believes the ban he's proposing would meet the Supreme Court's requirements — though it certainly could be challenged.
So, is the ban worth it? You'll have a chance to weigh in at upcoming meetings. The city has released the following schedule:
“No Solicitation Zone” Ordinance Schedule
Over the next two months, the “No Solicitation Zone” Ordinance schedule is as follows:
· Monday, Sept. 10 — Informal City Council meeting. City Attorney to answer questions from Council and receive direction. Public is welcome; public comment not permitted.
· Monday, Sept. 24 — Informal City Council meeting. City Attorney to present draft ordinance. Additional changes may be made to ordinance. Public is welcome; public comment not permitted.
· Tuesday, Oct. 9 — Formal City Council meeting. First reading of ordinance. Public welcome; public comment permitted.
· Tuesday, Oct. 23 — Formal City Council meeting. Possible second reading of ordinance. Public welcome; public comment permitted.
All meetings will begin at 1 p.m. and will be held in the Council Chambers located on the third floor of City Hall at 107 N. Nevada Avenue.
This schedule is tentative and could change based on Council direction or decision.