Kevin Hoover: Freedom Of Expression Includes Freedom From Harassment – March 18, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I’ll be the tool that half-heartedly defends this thing. I say half-hearted because the panhandling ordinance is another attempt to legislate away obnoxiousness, and that, to use John Lennon’s phrase, is like trying to shovel smoke with a pitchfork in the wind.

We have laws against smoking, biking and dogging on the Plaza, but those things still happen out there every day. So the effectiveness of yet another behavioral prohibition to make people be nice will, like that of some of the traffic calming measures, likely fade away to nothing within footsteps of Council Chamber. As Frank Zappa said, “Life is such a ball, I run the world from City Hall.”

I offer sincere appreciation to all the people who sound the civil liberties alarm whenever these freedom-nibbling statutes are proposed. We need to be aware of all the very real slippery-slope arguments.

Oh wait, I’m in favor of this, sort of. Since I’m obviously in the business of free expression, I have to be concerned about insults to the First Amendment. But in this case, as far as any peril to the Constitution… I’m just not feeling it.

All kinds of behaviors are being put in the “free speech” category, and berating people for their money seems like a stretch.

There was a young passer-through maybe eight years ago who made a living parking his scruffy self four or five feet from the ATMs at Bank of America and Washington Mutual, staring at customers as they punched in their codes and withdrew money. He generated all kinds of police calls because he creeped people out. Implicit in his looming presence was that a handout would prevent him from just reaching out and grabbing your stuff.

If that was his form of “protected expression,” then one can just as easily claim that using an ATM is a work of art on some level, and deserves to be shielded from interference. I mean, what if your account password is something really witty and creative, and some beggar over your shoulder is preventing you from using it? That punk might as well be smashing Michaelangelo’s Pietà, or burning the Library of Alexandria!

People deserve to feel comfortable when out in public. Why, there oughtta be a law.

Seriously, why isn’t spending a pleasant time downtown, walking and chatting with your companion without some guy getting in your face and demanding your money or take-out dinner considered protected speech?

Shane made it sound like you could just say “no” to these people and they’d politely give up their pursuit of your goodies. Sometimes that works, and they say “Thank you, have a nice day.” Other times they say… different things.

I sometimes wonder why the people who actually produce wealth – work all day at jobs they don’t necessarily love, shop at stores, create the paychecks that turn into “spare change” that everyone’s after – don’t get much consideration from the outspoken heroes of the Constitution.

These First Amendment champions didn’t seem to have any problem with abridging speech when it was military recruiters having restrictions placed on what they could say to whom, and neither did I.

It’s not at all unreasonable to approach the problem of public pestering with a gentle mix of incentives and enforcement.

Many of the traveler/beggars seem to have money enough for cigarettes, dogs and their exalted nugs. They aren’t making very good budgeting decisions if they’re dependent on the kindness/fearfulness of strangers for these necessities of life.

If they’re just going to waste money on tobacco and booze, why do we have to endure the sales pitch? Why would we want to enable self-destructive behavior? It’s another form of recruitment that needs to be limited.

And another thing. The North Coast Resource Center (NCRC) has gotten everything it demanded from the City over the past year-and-a-half. Unlike any other institution, it was allowed to bypass public process entirely. With no Planning Commission meetings or anyone asking the public what it thought, the NCRC got a Conditional Use Permit and fresh lease on its very own City building. Now, mid-day lunches have been resumed, too. All of this was under the promise that the outreach programs would abate bothersome begging by pulling people away from exploitative nuisance activity.

So wouldn’t it be sort of a force multiplier to push a little bit as well?

It’s not at all unreasonable to approach the problem of public pestering with a gentle mix of incentives and enforcement.

There isn’t any substantive impingement on civil liberties from this little law, which basically says people can’t harsh other people’s mellows in certain specified places.

All kinds of limits exist on public behavior. You can’t yell at people. You can’t say certain words.  Why is it OK to demand the contents of other people’s pockets? The panhandling ordinance is really just regulating an offensive business practice.

There are still innumerable ways to express onesself, – on soapboxes, with signs, letters to editors, blogs, publisc comment at council meetings… and if anyone tries to take Brent’s cardboard and marking pens away from him, they’ll have to answer to me! Really, those sign guys often as not end up in the Eye, massively magnifying their message, such as it is.

As far as the Girl Scouts and Breast Health solicitors go, I doubt that there’s a big enough dork in 9.2 square mile Arcata to complain to police about them – a butthead of that magnitude just wouldn’t fit within city limits.

The anti-ordinance people are draping themselves in Girl Scout uniforms just like the cannabis tycoons pretend like they’re compassionate medical caregivers. It’s just exigent conflation of skeeziness with nobility, and a deceptive tactic.

So, the thundering defenses of the Constitution are, in this case, misplaced. The ordinance is well-intentioned, narrowly defined and mildly worthy. If it means some granny and her grandkid can make their way Ninth Street without being harassed by some predatory scrounge lizard, hooray.

It’s just another case of the bad decisionmakers/non-contributors among us degrading conditions for everyone.