Cranston Demonstrators Fined for Violating Anti-Panhandling Ordinance, Lose Argument in Court

A month after the city of Cranston, Rhode Island, passed an anti-solicitation ordinance, housing advocates and demonstrators were fined $85 for violating that law to protest its enactment.

Those fined lost a battle in court recently on the grounds that they deliberately violated the ordinance to distribute fliers at the intersection of Sockanosset Crossroads and New London Turnpike encouraging residents to fight the ordinance, the Providence Journal reported.

“The evidence is beyond clear and convincing,” Cranston Municipal Court Judge Matthew B. Smith said.

The ordinance in question, known as “Prohibition Against Distribution to and Receiving From Occupants of Motor Vehicles,” prohibits anyone from entering a roadway to give or get something from a driver and/or his or her passengers.

City-wide anti-panhandling laws have increased by 43 percent, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s most recent “Housing Not Handcuffs” report.

The ACLU of Rhode Island and attorney Lynette Labinger said this ordinance is unconstitutional on the grounds of the First Amendment, calling it an “anti-solicitation ordinance.”

“The 2017 Prohibition regulates speech in a public forum, where the government’s power to regulate speech is most constrained,” Labinger wrote in a complaint filed against the city to the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island.

Labinger also argued that this ordinance does not differ much from its predecessor, which the city stopped enforcing on the grounds that it was challenged by the First Amendment in April 2016.

The previous ordinance, known as “Solicitation on Roadways Prohibited,” banned literature, donations and all solicitation directed at drivers and their passengers in travel lanes, intersections and public streets and highways within the state.

This new ordinance, sponsored by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, is said to be in response to residents and is intended to reduce incidents of distracted driving, according to city council members who wrote the ordinance.

Sockanosset Crossroads and New London Turnpike is named as one of several busy intersections in the ordinance that are said to have a high number of collisions and car accidents, according to city councilors.

Labinger finds fault with that reasoning, according to her complaint against the city.

“Upon information and belief, the data recited by the city did not document that any of the cited single- or multiple-car accidents at the identified intersections were caused by, or were in any respect connected to, an instance of panhandling or leafleting by a person on a sidewalk or median,” Labinger said.

Labinger said the law simply prevents homeless people from panhandling and prevents communication from others on subjects of public concern.

“The streets and sidewalks, including traffic medians and islands of the city, are traditional public forums,” Labinger wrote in her complaint. “The suppression of protected speech, whether by direct government interference of by self-censorship to avoid exposure to prosecution, constitutes irreparable harm.”

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.

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