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West Michigan ACLU Attorney: proposed panhandling ordinance threatens free speech

Miriam Aukerman is an attorney at the West Michigan ACLU. She examines the effects of the proposed panhandling ordinances and offers solutions.
Miriam Aukerman

Miriam Aukerman /ACLU

Three years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Michigan challenged the anti-begging laws in Grand Rapids with a lawsuit after hundreds of people had been arrested and prosecuted for panhandling in Grand Rapids. In August 2012, the District Court ruled that the anti-begging state law was unconstitutional. A year later, the Federal Court of Appeals confirmed that asking for money is protected speech.

In 2011, the West Michigan ACLU of West Michigan decided to challenge the anti-begging laws in Grand Rapids after receiving complaints from the homeless advocacy community and many other individuals regarding the harsh way that poor people were getting treated.

Now Grand Rapids City officials are considering a proposed ordinance that would significantly limit where it is legal to panhandle. On June 3, the Grand Rapids City Commission delayed the proposed ban with a divided vote. Decision on the panhandling ordinance has been postponed to allow time to further review the proposed restrictions.

“At the moral level, it is not a crime to be poor, it is not a crime to ask for help. It is really a measure of our society how we treat those who are weakest," says Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the ACLU. She has been serving at the West Michigan branch of the ACLU since it opened in December 2010. For the past 10 years, Aukerman has  been an active member of the ACLU. She participates in public speaking events to foster an understanding of constitutional rights and the ACLU's work.

Aukerman says that moral, legal and financial concerns must be considered.

“You see some cities that are trying to essentially find new ways to crack down on requests of poor people. There is a desire, unfortunately, to sweep poverty under the rug. The belief is that maybe if you don’t see it, it is not there. Well that’s not true. We don’t make poor people go away by criminalizing them for being poor, we just spend a lot of money incarcerating them for simply asking for help,” Aukerman says.

Auckerman's response to these kinds of attempts is to remind municipalities that at a legal level there are already laws in place against interfering with traffic, assault and fraud. All of that is criminal behavior, not speech. Her advice to municipalities is to focus on using existing laws that punish behavior rather than try to regulate speech itself.

We do not need laws that punish speech, says Aukerman.

“Whenever you start criminalizing speech you end up criminalizing a lot of things you don’t intend to criminalize because you can’t draw distinctions based on content,” says Aukerman. 

“Panhandling is no different from other forms of speech such as requesting charity,” Aukerman says.

She uses the example of a group going door to door asking for spare pop cans to raise money for a youth mission trip, saying that it is the same as someone asking for money on a street corner. Aukerman says that whether an individual is asking you to donate to the Salvation Army or sign a petition, it is all protected speech under the constitution.

Aukerman says studies have shown that taxpayers pay around $31,000 a year per homeless person to stay in jail, compared to the approximate $10,000 it would cost to find permanent housing and supportive services.

“There is an enormous financial cost to these laws. You’re incarcerating people and expecting that somehow that will improve the situation. Of course it doesn’t. All it does is cost taxpayers money. We could be using those funds to provide supportive services that they need to rebuild their lives,” Aukerman says.

A study in Florida showed that over a period of 10 years, the repeated incarceration of just 37 chronically homeless people cost taxpayers over $5 million. Aukerman found that on average a person arrested for panhandling in Grand Rapids spends six days in jail.

Aukerman says that many of the laws about panhandling make it tough for people to know where they can and cannot ask for help. She says that the ordinances on panhandling make it impossible to know which parts of the city are included in the restriction. The West Michigan ACLU challenges cities to map out how much of their city is off limits to begging and examine it.

After the 2013 Court of Appeals recognition of panhandling as free speech, the West Michigan ACLU wrote to over 80 local cities telling them that their local ordinances on panhandling were unconstitutional. Aukerman says that approximately 55 of the cities repealed or amended the ordinances or are in the process of reviewing them.

Aukerman says that many of the 55 cities want to respect free speech and treat everyone equally in the community, no matter their financial status.

"Criminalizing poverty does not help the poor. It doesn’t prevent poverty," says Aukerman. "All we are doing is locking people up for having the audacity to ask those of us who are better off, for spare change."

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