Last month, the Fort Smith Board of Directors repealed an unconstitutional begging ban that the ACLU of Arkansas had challenged in court. This is good news for Fort Smith residents and the fundamental rights guaranteed to every American under the Constitution. Other cities across Arkansas should take note.
Arkansas Officials Should Reduce Poverty, Not Punish the Poor
Arkansas has some of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, and yet its leaders continue to find ways to punish people for being poor. From debtors' prisons and panhandling restrictions to laws that criminalize tenants, some Arkansas politicians seem determined to make life even harder for Arkansans who are already struggling to get by.
The long-running effort by states and cities to make begging a crime is a prime example of this harmful trend. Instead of addressing the root causes of panhandling, many officials have tried to criminalize it – and they’re violating our Constitution in the process.
At its core, panhandling is simply the act of asking for help – and asking for help is something all of us have a right to do under the First Amendment: whether we’re raising money for charity or broken down by the side of the road. Federal and state courts across the country have agreed that begging is protected speech under the First Amendment.
That is why the ACLU of Arkansas continues to challenge these restrictions in court and educate local officials about their obligation to protect the rights of everyone in their communities, including those who rely on panhandling to help them survive.
Last year, a U.S. District Court blocked new state-level restrictions on panhandling, granting our request to enjoin the law on the grounds that it unconstitutionally infringed on the First Amendment right to free speech. Judge Billy Roy Wilson called the law “plainly unconstitutional” and said that the state had failed to “satisfy the rigorous constitutional standards that apply when government attempts to regulate expression based on its content.”
We’re also challenging begging bans in Rogers and in Hot Springs, where the city’s latest attempt to curb panhandling not only bans people from receiving anything from an operating vehicle, but it targets the giver for criminal penalties, as well.
Being asked for money makes some people feel uncomfortable – and panhandling is never going to be popular – but making an end-run around the Constitution at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens is not the answer.
When the government violates the rights of one vulnerable group – everyone’s rights are at risk.
Arkansans who are poor or homeless may not have well-connected friends or lobbyists to twist arms at the State Capitol or their city hall – but they do have rights, and the ACLU of Arkansas will continue to defend them.
In the land of the free, everyone - rich and poor - deserves equal protection under the law.