Naked City

Austin's panhandling ordinance ruled unconstitutional

Austin Municipal Judge Alfred D. Jenkins struck down the city's panhandling ordinance last week, ruling that its language is "over broad," not "narrowly tailored" and thus violates the First Amendment's free speech protection. The ruling came in the case of Robert Curran, who was arrested and ticketed for panhandling while carrying a sign reading "donations of any kind will help" at the intersection of Fifth Street and Lamar Boulevard. Although the ordinance supposedly bans the solicitation of "services, employment, business, or contributions from an occupant of a motor vehicle" by any person who is "in or next to a street, on a sidewalk, or in a private parking area," Curran's lawyers – among them, attorneys from Texas Rural Legal Aid and the Texas Civil Rights Project – proffered the 79 panhandling tickets issued from 2003-04 to show that police had used the ordinance to target homeless and/or unemployed people. "This is a victory for free speech and for what's right," TRLA attorney Robert Doggett said in a press release. "Homeless folks often have enough problems without the police chasing them down and arresting them."

The city has not yet decided whether to appeal Jenkins' decision to a county court-at-law, but City Attorney David Smith told the daily that the city believes the ordinance is constitutional. Still, Richard Troxell, executive director of House the Homeless, says the controversy over the ordinance – and who it targets – is about more than free speech. "The story is about poverty," Troxell said. The panhandlers and their signage are really protests against "businesses that won't pay a fair living wage."

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