By Guy Page
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont says panhandling is free speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The civil liberties organization has threatened to sue Brattleboro and five other municipalities if their anti-panhandling ordinances are not repealed.
A Brattleboro town ordinance states: “No person shall beg in or upon a street or other public place within the town. A person who violates this section shall be removed immediately by an officer, sheriff, deputy sheriff, or state police.”
But a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholds free speech protections for panhandling, so the ordinance must go, the ACLU-VT told Brattleboro in an Aug. 28 letter:
“At least 31 additional cities, including Vermont’s own City of Burlington, have repealed their panhandling ordinances when informed of the likely infringement on First Amendment rights. the Town’s ordinance not only almost certainly violates the constitutional right to free speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is also bad policy….We call on the Town to immediately repeal the Ordinance, end any enforcement practices related to it, and instead consider more constructive alternatives or risk potential litigation.”
Officials in the progressive-minded Windham County town are miffed.
“It is beyond disappointing that the ACLU’s news release today stated that ‘some [municipalities], like Brattleboro, have recently increased enforcement, creating additional hardship for impoverished Vermonters’ and that your letter describes [the Brattleboro Police Department’s] conduct in a manner that is not only untrue, but actually is exactly the opposite of the approach that BPD and the entire town government have taken to addressing this unfortunate situation,” Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote the ACLU-VT, the Brattleboro Reformer reported Aug. 29.
In fact, police merely encourage panhandlers to access food shelfs and other forms of public assistance, officials there say. The socially-sensitive town select board wouldn’t even support a mildly-worded flyer affirming the right to panhandle but warning that “aggressive behavior can cause these activities to become illegal.”
The ACLU-VT letter is part of a statewide and national campaign. Similar letters were sent to Bennington, Rutland Town, Winooski, Barre Town, and Montpelier. Nationwide, 240 municipalities have been approached for their anti-panhandling ordinances.
Brattleboro isn’t the only town where some people are concerned about panhandlers’ behavior. Earlier this year, H.412, the “homeless bill of rights” died in the House Housing, General and Military Affairs Committee because business and municipal interest groups worried it might provide legal cover for panhandling transients to bother shoppers and merchants.
Free speech advocates counter public dislike for panhandling by saying the First Amendment exists because our Founders knew it would be necessary to protect socially unpopular speech. The same First Amendment that protects panhandlers today may protect (for example) unpopular expressions of so-called “hate speech” tomorrow. In fact, the 2015 case cited by the ACLU-VT, Reed V. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, specifically upheld the rights of a church to post signs about church meetings in the face of a hostile municipality. Since then, however, Reed has been construed as supporting the right panhandle in public.
Besides the perceived threat to free speech, the public’s interest in panhandling is interwoven with at least three other policy challenges: the addiction crisis, the affordable housing shortage, and the proposed legalization of “tax and regulate” marijuana.
Despite record-low unemployment (2.8 percent), homelessness in Vermont is on the rise. The State’s annual one-night “count” of 1,291 rose 5 percent in 2018 over 2017, which was up 11 percent over 2016. Two oft-cited causes are addiction and the high cost of housing.
Colorado has seen a large influx of “stoner” homeless people attracted there by the state’s “tax and regulate” marijuana legalization. One sheriff said that 1 in 3 incarcerated people were transients. If Vermont legalizes commercial pot, it too can expect a similar influx.
Every Freedom Friday, State House Headliners and the Vermont Daily Chronicle examine ongoing public disputes about freedoms recognized in the Vermont and U.S. Constitutions.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.