ACLU suit challenges restrictions on begging on Charlottesville Downtown Mall

Lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia today filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court challenging a City of Charlottesville ordinance that unconstitutionally restricts begging on the city’s Downtown Mall.

Passed in August 2010, the ordinance prohibits the soliciting of persons sitting in outdoor cafes or within 50 feet of the two streets that cross the mall. It also bans the soliciting of individuals conducting business at any vendor table or cart.

“Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is a public forum where the right of people to assemble and communicate is protected by the First Amendment,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “The ordinance is too vaguely worded to understand, unreasonably restricts freedom of expression, and clearly discriminates based on the content of speech, allowing many kinds of expressive activity but not panhandling.”

In recent years, the ACLU of Virginia has actively opposed ordinances that restrict panhandling and/or roadside solicitations in Richmond, Herndon, Newport News, and Hampton. In most of these jurisdictions, proposals were dropped or amended during the legislative process that enabled the ordinances to pass constitutional muster.

In Hampton and Newport News anti-panhandling ordinances that would have prevented solicitation of vehicles by pedestrians were modified to ban such solicitations only when panhandlers entered traffic. In Herndon, the town council dropped a proposal that would have prevented Latino day laborers from soliciting for work near roadways. Several years ago, Richmond attempted to ban all panhandling in the central business district, but withdrew the proposal after the ACLU threatened to file a lawsuit.

Charlottesville lawyers Jeff Fogel and Steve Rosenfield, along with ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg and Dunn Fellow Tom Fitzpatrick, represent five homeless men who depend on panhandling for at least part of their income.

“Anti-solicitation ordinances are not about public safety, as they are purported to be, but about removing the reminders of poverty from our sight,” said Fogel. “Fortunately, in this country, every citizen, rich or poor, has the same right to use our sidewalks, parks and malls.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Albert Clatterbuck, Christopher Martin, Earl McCraw, John Jordan, and Michael Sloan. They are seeking an injunction to prevent Charlottesville from continuing to enforce the ordinance, damages and attorney’s fees.

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