Salzman Challenging Arcata’s Panhandling Law – February 24, 2011
ARCATA – A well-known political consultant has warned the Arcata City Council that he intends to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the City’s panhandling ordinance.
Arcata resident Richard Salzman, who has helped coordinate the campaigns of District Attorney Paul Gallegos and several other liberal candidates, announced his intent to take legal action in a Feb. 21 press release.
Describing himself as “a lifelong member of the American Civil Liberties Union and staunch defender of the Constitution of the United States and the First Amendment right to free speech,” Salzman questioned the ordinance’s prohibitions against spoken and written requests for handouts.
He said he won’t challenge the provisions that ban aggressive panhandling but the rest of the ordinance shows that the City Council “overstepped its authority and is in violation of its citizens’ constitutional rights.”
Included with the release is a Feb. 14 letter to the Arcata City Council from Peter E. Martin, a Eureka attorney and local ACLU chapter boardmember, which outlines legal objections.
Contesting the ordinance’s finding that its contents are “narrowly tailored,” Martin writes that it is actually “embarrassingly broad.”
He describes panhandling as being akin to soliciting charity. “Begging is a charitable solicitation,” Martin said in the letter. “The First Amendment clearly protects charitable solicitations. No distinction of constitutional dimension exists between soliciting funds for oneself and for charity.”
Martin is working pro bono on Salzman’s behalf and reflects his contention that the council has gone overboard, writing that “a beggar cannot even hold a sign up to ask for money; a more clearly content-based restriction on speech is difficult to imagine.”
The letter invites the City to “amend its panhandling ordinance as set forth herein, and thereby avoid the expense, uncertainty and unpleasantness of contested litigation.”
The ordinance was approved last year by a majority of the council, with Councilmembers Susan Ornelas and Shane Brinton voting against it.
In addition to banning aggressive panhandling, it prohibits begging within 20 feet of businesses, parking lots, banks with automatic teller machines, bus stops, foot bridges and intersections.
Spoken and written requests for money are included in the ordinance’s definition of panhandling.
Its findings section states that other city laws have failed to have an effect on a situation that has “generated an enhanced sense of fear, intimidation and disorder, and has caused many retail customers to avoid shopping or dining within the City.”
In an interview, Salzman acknowledged those impacts and said he has personal experience with them.
He moved his elderly parents to Humboldt six years ago and said in one of their first outings, his mother was intimidated by groups of people hanging out on Ninth Street.
Salzman said he’s aware of the motives for the ordinance.
“I share many of those concerns, but I think aggressive panhandling is already covered in existing laws and I question the need for an additional ordinance,” he continued. “The new ordinance expands it to include the passive act of holding a sign and unfortunately, that aspect is violating people’s civil rights.”
Salzman also questioned the ordinance’s effectiveness. “It’s possible the only thing they accomplished with this is outlawing free speech,” he said.
City Attorney Nancy Diamond said the ordinance is modeled after what’s been done in elsewhere in the state and country, and what’s been tested in court.
“We are not the first community to look at panhandling ordinances,” she said. “This is very widespread and there is a fair amount of judicial law we were able to look at… we weren’t acting in a vacuum.”
The City of Los Angeles’ panhandling law is one of the “primary” examples Arcata considered and is “one of many from around the state,” Diamond continued.
She was asked about the allegation that Arcata’s law is shamefully broad. “It’s no broader than other ordinances that have been adopted throughout the state and the country, for that matter,” said Diamond. “There’s been quite a bit of litigation on the issue.”
But she added that Martin’s letter will be considered and “we will see what actions are appropriate.”