The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed two lawsuits in federal district court today challenging anti-panhandling ordinances in Fort Smith, Hot Springs and Rogers on the basis that they violate the First Amendment by criminalizing people for exercising their right to free speech. The ACLU asked the court to invalidate and block enforcement of the ordinances, which have caused their clients to be arrested, jailed and prosecuted for peacefully asking for help.

“One of our country’s most fundamental founding principles is that government can’t silence speech it doesn’t like,” said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas Legal Director. “A ban on asking for assistance is a ban on speech.  These ordinances violate the First Amendment and should not be allowed to stand.”

Hot Springs Ordinance 6168 makes it a crime to solicit anything from the occupant of a vehicle. Fort Smith Section 6-17 severely restricts panhandling within the city limits, while Section 18-72 prohibits begging in all parks. Rogers requires a permit before any begging is allowed and the police chief has unlimited discretion to approve or deny the permit. The suits were filed on behalf of two plaintiffs, Glynn Dilbeck and Michael Andrew Rodgers, who have been affected by the ordinances. 

“Our clients did nothing wrong; they only asked for help, and for that they were arrested, jailed and prosecuted,” said Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director. “If people are uncomfortable seeing people who are poor or homeless, they should address the root causes of poverty and improve the quality of life of all their neighbors, rather than trying to sweep the problem under the rug.”