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Arkansas judge strikes down city’s panhandling ordinance

April 2, 2019

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) — A federal judge has struck down another effort to restrict panhandling in Arkansas, citing concerns that a city’s ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson on Monday imposed a permanent injunction on a 2017 ordinance in Hot Springs that outlaws physical interactions between pedestrians and people in vehicles, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. The ordinance violates the First Amendment by regulating speech based on content, Dawson said.

Laws that limit speech because of the message “pose the inherent risk that the government seeks not to advance a legitimate regulatory goal, but to suppress unpopular ideas or information,” Dawson said.

The city argued that the ordinance doesn’t target speech, since it prohibits people from interacting with vehicles and pedestrians in a way that creates safety concerns, regardless of their words.

Dawson rejected the argument, saying speech and physical interaction are often intertwined.

“The Court is unpersuaded by the city’s effort to separate physical interaction from its expressive intent or message as a means of avoiding conflict with the First Amendment,” he wrote. “All people everywhere routinely communicate non-verbal messages through physical interaction, often without noticing it.”

U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson cited similar constitutional concerns in 2017 when he struck down a state law that prohibited begging. The decision followed a similar ruling he made in 2016 that ended a previous version of the law that had been in place for 30 years. Wilson’s most recent preliminary injunction of the state law remains on appeal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed all three cases on behalf of panhandlers, including Michael Rodgers, a disabled veteran who said he begs so he has enough money to live. The ordinances were intentionally created to discriminate against beggars and panhandlers, Rodgers said.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com