Metro

Federal judge strikes down Worcester panhandling laws

Scott Loren panhandled along Alewife Brook Parkway in Cambridge on Tuesday.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Scott Loren panhandled along Alewife Brook Parkway in Cambridge on Tuesday.

A federal judge has ruled that a pair of Worcester ordinances aimed at curbing panhandling violated constitutional free speech rights, a decision that followed removal of similar laws from the books in Lowell and Portland, Maine.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts had challenged the Worcester ordinances, which prohibited panhandling outside banks and theaters and made it illegal to “beg, panhandle, or solicit in an aggressive manner.” They also prohibited standing or walking on a traffic island or roadway except to cross.

Courts have consistently struck down blanket bans on panhandling, leading cities to narrow the scope of their restrictions. By targeting “aggressive panhandling” in the name of public safety, Worcester had sought to meet legal muster. The city won a case challenging its law in 2013, but the legal landscape has shifted because of a recent Supreme Court decision.

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On Monday, US District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman ruled that Worcester’s ordinances were too broadly written and as a result discriminated against panhandlers.

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“Municipalities must go back to the drafting board and craft solutions which recognize an individual’s right to continue to solicit in accordance with their rights under the First Amendment, while at the same time, ensuring that their conduct does not threaten their own safety, or that of those being solicited,” Hillman wrote in a 30-page decision.

Hillman had backed the city in 2013, but in this week’s ruling he cited a recent Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which held that an Arizona town’s regulations of outdoor signs violated the free-speech rights of a church. Specialists say the Supreme Court decision, handed down in June, will have far-reaching ramifications on free-speech laws.

In June, the Supreme Court also vacated an appeals court decision upholding the Worcester ordinances in light of the Reed decision, returning the case to district court.

The ACLU, which sued Worcester on behalf of two homeless residents, hailed the judge’s decision, saying the ordinances were discriminatory.

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“We’ve seen that these laws will consistently be struck down,” said Kevin Martin, the lead counsel in the ACLU’s three successful challenges. “Simply by labeling solicitation as aggressive, a city does not gain the right to ban it.”

The decision disappointed Worcester authorities, who said their ordinances targeted “behavior, not speech.”

“The city limited the scope of the ordinance to highly defined areas where the public safety issue was the greatest,” said the city’s solicitor, David Moore, who added that officials would meet soon to discuss how to proceed.

Citywide bans on panhandling in public increased by 25 percent in the United States from 2011 to 2014, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Bans that seek to restrict panhandling to certain public places increased 20 percent.

Boston has limited restrictions on panhandling, specialists say.

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The general motivation is to “move visibly homeless people out of public spaces,” usually at the urging of affected businesses, said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the group.

But since the Reed decision, several courts have struck down bans, and other cities, such as Colorado Springs and Denver, have changed their enforcement practices, she said.

Michael Meltsner, a Northeastern University law professor, said ordinances that specifically target panhandling “go too far,” adding that broader laws are already on the books to handle public safety situations.

“Courts are slowly beginning to realize that poor people have a right to free speech, too, and it has to be protected,” he said.

The Worcester decision followed two similar rulings against New England cities.

In September, an appeals court ruled Portland’s ban on panhandling and other activities on median strips was unconstitutional, saying it “indiscriminately bans virtually all expressive activity” in the areas.

“The city may have been motivated by a perfectly understandable desire to protect the public from the dangers posed by people lingering in median strips,” the court ruled. “But the city chose too sweeping a means of doing so, given the First Amendment interest in protecting the public’s right to freedom of speech.”

Last month in Boston, US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock struck down a Lowell ordinance that banned vocal panhandling in the downtown and aggressive panhandling throughout the city.

“The First Amendment does not permit a city to cater to the preference of one group, in this case tourists or downtown shoppers, to avoid the expressive acts of others, in this case panhandlers, simply on the basis that the privileged group does not like what is being expressed,” wrote US District Judge Douglas Woodlock.

In the Worcester case, Hillman ruled that at least some of the conduct targeted by the ordinance was defined narrowly enough to achieve the city’s goal of “promoting the safety and welfare of the public.” But recent decisions had showed that such laws were not “the least restrictive means of achieving the government’s goal.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.