BOSTON (AP) _ Massachusetts' highest court, saying that begging is constitutionally protected free speech, struck down a 111-year-old state law Wednesday that permitted the imprisonment of panhandlers.

In addition to impinging on free speech, the statute also ``suppresses an even broader right _ the right to engage fellow human beings with the hope of receiving aid and compassion,'' wrote Justice John M. Greaney in the Supreme Judicial Court's unanimous opinion.

The law, which dates to 1866, states that anyone caught begging for charity in a public place may be deemed a vagrant and imprisoned for up to six months.

Craig Benefit, 36, a homeless man who was arrested three times in 1992 and 1993 for panhandling in Harvard Square, challenged the law, even though the charges were dismissed in 1994.

Greaney dismissed prosecutors' argument that the law is necessary to preserve safety.

``If we ever end up a society where you can't ask for help, we're in deep trouble,'' said Benefit's lawyer, Sarah Wunsch of the American Civil Liberties Union.