ACLU of Iowa warns Coralville its panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional, calls for its repeal

Chris Yarzab/Flickr, cropped

The ACLU of Iowa sent a letter to Coralville and three other cities on Tuesday, warning that their ordinances against panhandling are unconstitutional.

As part of an ongoing review of such ordinances in Iowa, the state chapter of the ACLU determined Coralville, Dubuque, Davenport and Bettendorf have bans on panhandling that “violate free speech and must be repealed,” Shefali Aurora said at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.

“Punishing homeless people with fees, fines or arrests simply for asking for help is not only unconstitutional but also inhumane,” Aurora, an ACLU of Iowa staff attorney, said. “It only prolongs their homelessness. The only true solutions to homelessness are better access to housing and services in our communities.”

“Rather than criminalizing panhandling through ordinances like these, cities can modify restrictions and infrastructure to optimize pedestrian and traffic safety, while avoiding being prejudicial to those in poverty and also without limiting protected speech.”

Coralville’s one sentence-long ordinance states, “No person shall solicit money or other items from a person situated in a motor vehicle that is located on any public street, alley or other public property.”

In the letter addressed to members of the Coralville City Council and the city attorney’s office, Aurora explained the ordinance violates the free speech protection delineated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

In that case, limitations on the size and placement of signs based on the content of the signs were found to be unconstitutional by all nine justices. The court rejected Gilbert’s arguments that its ordinance was needed for reasons of traffic safety and aesthetics, finding that restrictions based on content are subject to “strict scrutiny,” the highest level of judicial review, and must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling public interest.

The Reed case did not involve panhandling — the signs were for church-sponsored events — but two months after the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals cited the ruling when it struck down a Springfield, Illinois, ordinance against panhandling as an overly broad unconstitutional restriction on free speech rights. Springfield appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the justices declined to hear the case, leaving the 7th Circuit ruling in force. Since then, courts around the country have overturned more panhandling ordinances in over 70 cities around the country. Numerous other cities have removed their ordinances, recognizing they likely violate free speech rights.

The four letters the ACLU of Iowa sent this week follow similar letters sent to Des Moines, Grimes and Council Bluffs in 2018. All three of those cities subsequently rescinded their panhandling ordinances.

Protesters demonstrate in front of Coralville Police Department, June 1, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

In the letter to the members of the Coralville City Council, Aurora said “a court will very likely determine that the ordinance is a ‘content-based’ restriction on speech that is presumptively unconstitutional … As you know, successful claims under the First Amendment to enjoin the Coralville Solicitation From Persons in Motor Vehicles Prohibited Ordinance will entitle the prevailing plaintiff to attorney’s fees and costs.”

The ACLU of Iowa is asking Coralville to take three actions.

1. Stop enforcing the Coralville Municipal Code Solicitation From Persons in Motor Vehicles Prohibited Ordinance, § 41.14. This requires instructing any law enforcement officers charged with enforcing the municipal code that the Ordinance is no longer to be enforced in any way, including by issuance of citations or warnings, or by telling panhandlers to move along.

2. Immediately initiate steps necessary to repeal § 41.14.

3. If there are any pending prosecutions under § 41.14, dismiss those charges.

The letters to Bettendorf, Davenport and Dubuque ask their city councils to take the same steps. The letters to all four cities ask the councils to reply within “14 days of the date of this letter that you agree to undertake all three actions.”

Asked at the news conference if the ACLU of Iowa will take legal action if the cities don’t take the three steps in the letters, Aurora responded, “Our policy is not to forecast litigation plans.”

Coralville Mayor Meghann Foster said on Tuesday the city is reviewing the letter.