LITTLE ROCK -- A U.S. District Court has blocked new state-level restrictions on panhandling, granting a request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas to enjoin the law on the grounds that it unconstitutionally infringed on the First Amendment right to free speech.
In the ruling, 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.”
“This ruling is a victory for all Arkansans who value their First Amendment rights,” said ACLU of Arkansas executive director Rita Sklar. “Being poor is not a crime, and asking for help shouldn’t land you in jail. The ACLU of Arkansas will continue to defend the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, especially on behalf of vulnerable people to whom its protections are too often denied.”
The ACLU of Arkansas filed the lawsuit on behalf of two Arkansas residents who face citation, arrest and prosecution under the new law, which bans standing or remaining “for the purpose of asking for anything as a charity or a gift” in “an aggressive or threatening manner.” The organization argued that the law’s overly broad and poorly defined provisions have had a chilling effect on the free speech rights of its clients. The First Amendment prohibits speech restrictions that are based on the substance of the message being expressed.
In 2016 the ACLU of Arkansas successfully challenged a state law making it a crime to ask for money, food or other charity, on the basis that it violated the right to free speech. The court agreed that the law unlawfully criminalized protected free speech and struck it down. The state legislature then passed a new version of the law earlier this year.