PEOPLE: Judge suspends solicitation ban

Panhandler2

Photo by Steve Saint
Bijou Bridge panhandler Clint knows there are laws against soliciting, but this doesn’t stop him from begging – and it doesn’t stop motorists from giving him change while they wait for the light to change. Clint admits he is a “slave to alcohol,” but doesn’t know how to stop drinking himself to death.

 Loring Wirbel

Warning that the No-Solicitation Zone ordinance passed by the Colorado Springs City Council in November probably violates the U.S. Constitution, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger has stopped the city from enforcing it.

The controversial measure would ban the asking of money for any reason in a 12-block area of downtown. The purpose of the ordinance is to clear beggars and pandhandlers out of downtown, but has been crafted as a comprehensive solicitation ban in an effort to pass free-speech tests.

The PPJPC has opposed the ordinance for several months and leads several co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

PPJPC Executive Director Steve Saint said homeless people have rights and shouldn’t be demonized by upscale civic leaders and merchants.

“I’ve listened to councilmembers basically label all pandhandlers as liars, frauds and criminals,” Saint said. “There is some of that, but there are also a lot of mentally ill people out there who aren’t getting help. They need our compassion, not our scorn. We need to work together for new solutions, not new laws.”

While the injunction is preliminary in preparation for a full trial, the judge found the city unlikely to prevail on the merits of the case. In many such cases, parties negotiate out of court rather than move to a full trial.

The city has not dropped the suit, however, and remains headed towards further investment of time and resources in fighting for the ban.

Krieger is known for being a very tough and no-nonsense judge, and spent nearly an hour reading her findings on Dec. 18, five days after the hearing.

For the first 30 minutes, she gave the impression she would rule against the ACLU, saying she understood the city’s motivation and reason for wording the ordinance the way it was, which banned all types of solicitation downtown in order to preserve “content neutrality.”

But in the last 15 minutes of her finding, she ripped apart the city’s case, saying it was obvious from speeches by the mayor and city councilmembers in earlier meetings that the true intent was to remove the homeless and unwanted from downtown.

“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” Krieger told City Attorney Chris Melcher. “This court respects the city’s intellectual candor, but constitutionality cannot be satisfied through rhetorical gymnastics.”

At the Dec. 13 hearing, Saint testified, along with a Greenpeace representative, about the rights of nonprofit organizations to conduct public outreach. Just this past summer, the PPJPC started a donation-box campaign to help launch a “Housing For All” initiative to help prevent renters and struggling homeowners from losing their housing and, in many cases, becoming homeless.

Krieger indicated she was ready to rule on Dec. 13, but the city asked for more time to file additional support briefs.

Media outlets made heavy use of a comment by Mark Silverstein, legal director of Colorado ACLU, who said that a person holding a sign for a mayoral campaign would be legal under the city ordinance, while another person holding a sign saying “Please give for breast cancer research” would fall afoul of the law.

This challenges the neutrality of the content of speech that is simply unacceptable under the Constitution, Silverstein said. In order to meet neutrality restrictions, the city crafted an ordinance to ban all solicitation, including fundraising from the Salvation Army, Girl Scouts, or even PPJPC itself.

Saint said the ordinance “criminalizes the mentally ill and criminalizes the veteran.” He cited the United Way’s 2012 Point in Time Survey, showing at least 241 of Colorado Springs’ homeless are mentally ill and at least 230 are veterans.

Beth Clements Mosley, artistic director of Star Bar Players, gave a presentation to the media about the importance of not criminalizing “simple statements of need.” She said that if the ACLU found it necessary to defend the Nazis marching in Skokie, Ill., then the organization certainly needed to challenge the city’s efforts to stop the speech of the needy and homeless.

The PPJPC openly challenged the ordinance on Dec. 7 by soliciting for its homeless and mentally ill initiatives in the proposed zone. Greenpeace pledged to follow suit. Observers were surprised to see the ordinance pass 8-1, with Val Snider being the sole dissenter. Snider said his primary reason for opposition was the mayor’s insistence on putting the ordinance on a “fast track,” which trivialized the notion of holding a true public hearing on the ban.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also include street musician James Binder and disabled resident Ron Marshall, often found asking for change at the corner of Tejon Street and Pikes Peak Avenue.

Loring Wirbel is a member of the PPJPC Board of Directors.

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