ACLU fires lawsuit at city on behalf of panhandlers

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has filed suit against Indianapolis on behalf of four plaintiffs who claim their free-speech rights were violated when they were told to stop panhandling on downtown streets.

The suit, filed Friday, says the plaintiffs were soliciting donations downtown within the past week when they were asked by city police to cease the activity and leave the area. The plaintiffs were not violating the city’s existing panhandling ordinance, the lawsuit says.

Marion County residents Tina Morris, Melissa Peppers, Brenton Fordham and Fred Correll are listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

“The plaintiffs, who all live in poverty, passively solicit contributions from pedestrians near Circle Centre mall by holding up signs,” the ACLU said. “They do not seek funds from people driving by, and do not verbally harass pedestrians. The plaintiffs' activity is fully protected by the First Amendment.”

The ACLU said it would seek class-action status on behalf of “All persons soliciting contributions from pedestrians in the downtown area in Indianapolis—defined as the area south of North Street, north of South Street, east of West Street and west of East Street” —who are not violating the panhandling ordinance.

Panhandling, defined as a vocal solicitation for an immediate donation in a public place, is already prohibited in Indianapolis from sunset and sunrise, and at all times in many locations, including bus stops, bank entrances, ATMs or sidewalk cafes.

However, passive solicitation, which involves holding a sign or jingling a cup of change, is not regulated.

In March, Mayor Greg Ballard proposed strengthening the ordinance to ban panhandling and passive solicitation at all times in the heart of downtown and ban panhandling across the rest of the city from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. It would also ban panhandling at all times near building entrances, parking meters, crosswalks, intersections or off-ramps.

A City-County Council panel, however, has tabled the proposal because of possible First Amendment issues.

Panhandling cost the city about $6.3 million in visitor spending annually, according to the mayor's office, because it turns off tourists and convention-goers.

City spokesman Marc Lotter said the city has not yet seen the lawsuit. He said the ACLU previously sued the city over the existing panhandling law and lost the case.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare that the city’s actions violate the First Amendment. They seek an injunction ordering the city to allow the plaintiffs to panhandle without any interference. They also seek reimbursement of their costs and legal fees.

"The First Amendment protects the rights of all people to ask for contributions, whether they are seeking political donations or asking for assistance for poor people on city sidewalks,” ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said in a prepared statement. “This case seeks to vindicate a right that is fundamentally important for all."


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