Interview with Mark Weinberg, Chicago civil rights attorney with a specialty in panhandling cases
Minow: When can a library tell people not to panhandle or solicit - e.g. on the sidewalk leading up to the library front doors?
Weinberg: Nobody should be permitted to block the entrance to any building anywhere, including a library. And laws are already on the books that prohibit this. Should there be special restrictions on panhandling? Most cities have so-called "Aggressive Panhandling Laws" that impose special restrictions on people who panhandle by, for example, prohibiting people from panhandling in certain locations, like within 10 feet of a cash station or 10 feet within a bus stop. Some of those restrictions make sense. Panhandler or not, nobody should be allowed to hover over anybody at or near a cash station. That act is a threatening in and of itself. But, generally speaking, the public space, like public sidewalks, should be open to everyone. So, my answer is that if a person who is panhandling is on the public space and not blocking the passage of anyone, he or she should not be arrested for the act. And, no, it shouldn't matter if it's close to a library.
Minow: Would the same apply to people with political petitions, girl scout cookies or other solicitation?
Weinberg: Yes. The law should be the same for everyone, but as enforced in the real-world, there's definitely a double standard, meaning commercial solicitors like, say, newspaper vendors or people passing out a new high-fiber breakfast cereal are rarely, if ever, interfered with by the cops. People goo gaga over their free samples. But panhandlers get arrested all the time for the same activity. This is especially odd since, under the law, commercial speech has generally received less First Amendment protection than political speech, but in the real-world commercial solicitation actually gets treated much more generously. Why? This is
America; we love our commerce.
Minow: What about after hours? For example, Los Angeles enacted an ordinance http://lapd.com/article.aspx?&a=2475 prohibiting the public from loitering outside libraries between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. What do you think about that?
Weinberg: After-hour restrictions on panhandling are quite popular today. Most Cities impose such restrictions. And such restrictions have been upheld as constitutionally-permissible. And in theory such reasonable restrictions don't bother me, but in practice they do. That's because in practice cops use these reasonable restrictions to interfere with lawful, innocent and peaceful panhandling activity. In Chicago, for example, the "Aggressive Panhandling" law limits panhandling within 10 feet of a cash station, but the cops, when the mood strikes them, arrest panhandlers for panhandling within 10 feet of any building that has a cash station within it, which basically allows the cops to arrest panhandlers with impunity, which they do. So, the problem is the misuse and misapplication of these reasonable restrictions. The problem isn't the laws; it's their unreasonable applications.