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Will Work for – the Right to Free Speech?

March 7, 2008

Medford, OR – The Medford City Council predicted it would have some legal trouble with the city's new anti-panhandling ordinance that went into effect in January, and it was right. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city for allegedly violating Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution, which governs free speech rights. The ACLU contends that laws on the books already cover any problems panhandlers could cause, without restricting their right to ask for money.

Medford is one of several cities defending efforts to reduce panhandling. Its ordinance restricts "immediate donations" and "abusive or aggressive" solicitation. ACLU of Oregon communications director Brian Willoughby says the issue is not panhandling, it's that restricting a person's pitch for spare change is also limiting that person's freedom of speech.

"It's a fundamental right for us in the State of Oregon. The constitution doesn't allow laws to be crafted that are based on the content of speech. So if, on a sidewalk, you're allowed to say, 'How's the weather?', you're also allowed to say, 'I'm really hungry today. Could I have a dollar?'"

Medford's police chief has said the city researched similar ordinances in other areas before drafting this one. Portland and Roseburg also have been working to curtail panhandling. And a recent survey in Coos Bay found panhandlers can make several hundred dollars in a day. Police there say the easiest way to cut down on the practice is to not give money to panhandlers.

Willoughby says the new ordinance is not needed because plenty of public conduct laws are on the books now.

"Laws already exist to take care of abusive behavior – disorderly conduct, interfering with traffic – that kind of thing is already covered by existing ordinances that are constitutional. Targeting this as a speech issue makes it unconstitutional."

The lawsuit, Volkart v. City of Medford, was filed in Jackson County Circuit Court. Volkart is not a panhandler, but an ACLU member.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR