CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia is calling a proposed ordinance written to set limits on panhandlers in the Capital City unconstitutional.
“I just think that there are existing laws that the City can enforce in situations where there is actual criminal activity and, because of that, we don’t need to enact laws that are restrictions on speech,” said Jamie Lynn Crofts.
In general, the ordinance — if approved — would make solicitation illegal in Charleston without a free, city-issued permit in cases when goods or services of like value are not provided in exchange.
“That is a pretty clear content-based restriction,” Crofts argued. “Content-based restrictions, under the 1st Amendment, are generally unconstitutional.”
Crofts detailed the ACLU’s concerns in a letter being prepared for the City of Charleston.
As proposed, the permit mandate would apply to individuals and also to non-profit groups like the Salvation Army and a background check requirement is part of the permit application process.
Permits would be good for one year with options for renewals.
Even those with permits would not be allowed to solicit in high-traffic areas, including highway medians. Asking for money would also be illegal at ATMs, school zones, outdoor dining areas and similar locations.
“Many of the places where they are trying to ban panhandling or solicitation are places that we have always considered to be traditional public forums in our country,” Crofts said. “Those are places like sidewalks and public parks and those types of things.”
The Charleston Homeless Task Force submitted the ordinance for consideration to Charleston City Council earlier this week.
Becky Ceperley, a Charleston city councilmember and chair of the Homeless Task Force, is the lead sponsor of the ordinance that, she had previously said, recognized free speech rights.
“It’s in no way trying to stop people — and that ought to be clear — we’re not trying to stop people from exercising their constitutional right of free speech. That’s not the issue. The issue is keeping people safe,” Ceperley said earlier this week.
The ordinance has been developed in response to what city officials have said is an “influx of criminal vagrants” and homeless people.
Crofts said the ACLU successfully challenged a similar 2013 ordinance restricting panhandling in busy intersections in the City of Parkersburg.
“Even though this issue can be harder for people to agree upon, in general, I think that Americans can all agree that free speech and expression are a very important part of our country,” Crofts said on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”
The next regular meeting of Charleston’s City Council is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 20.