WASHINGTON — A small-town battle over free speech and public safety has stretched to the Supreme Court, thanks to a man who sometimes lives under a bridge in Worcester.
Robert Thayer walked into a Worcester City Council meeting in 2013 and implored officials not to pass two ordinances that clamped down on “aggressive begging,” with buffer zones outside locations such as banks and theaters and a ban on standing in traffic islands.
He failed. But those unsuccessful pleas helped launch a legal fight with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, a homeless advocacy group in Cambridge, and an impassioned School Committee member.
The case centers on whether the ordinances are so broad they threaten free speech for some of the country’s most voiceless residents. The Supreme Court will determine Jan. 9 whether to hear Thayer’s appeal.
“There are some people being rambunctious out there,” Thayer said at the meeting. “But there are some of us out there who really need it.”
Thayer has become the unusual face of a debate over how to meet the needs of a rising homeless population and keep communities secure.
Cities nationwide are taking firmer stances on pushy panhandling, from Lowell to Santa Barbara, Calif. The Boston City Council in 2013 strengthened its solicitation ordinance, which places greater limits on locations people can panhandle.
But critics contend Worcester’s rules go too far.
The city’s definition of aggressive begging includes not only physical threats, but also holdinga cup or flashing a sign at anyone waiting in line, or panhandling within 20 feet of a bus stop, theater, pay phone, sidewalk cafe, or ATM. Soliciting also is banned after dark.
“This goes against the right of people who have to ask for things to survive,” said Tracy Novick, the Worcester School Committee member involved in the suit. Novick noted even though the move limits politicians from campaigning in popular traffic locations, officers haven’t cracked down in the same way.
Thayer’s girlfriend, Sharon Brownson, also is a plaintiff.
City officials, who have struggled for years to assist the region’s homeless population, dispute notions they are trying to wipe out the poor.
“This is fundamentally about regulating coercive and intimidating behavior and not regulating speech,” said David Moore, the city solicitor.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are panhandling, a Girl Scout, or a little league football player.”
But advocates see this as a clear First Amendment violation. And they’re using a recent Supreme Court decision as ammunition.
Justices, citing free speech grounds, struck down a Massachusetts law last year that allowed 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics.
“An individual confronted with an uncomfortable message can always turn the page, change the channel, or leave the website,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “Not so on public streets and sidewalks. There, a listener often encounters speech he might otherwise tune out.”
The differing buffer zone philosophies present a discrepancy, Thayer’s attorneys argue.
“If anything, this is a far easier case,” said Matthew Segal, legal director for the Massachusetts ACLU, who is representing the plaintiffs with Boston’s Goodwin Procter. “This case, perhaps more than any other, is a real test of whether the poor and homeless will get the same free speech protections from the courts as everyone else gets.”
The clinic verdict arrived a week after a federal appeals court upheld Worcester’s ordinances.
And in an odd twist, the opinion came from former Supreme Court justice David Souter, who still sits in on occasional cases. He said the ban was reasonable because “solicitation can cause serious apprehensiveness. . . . We are not dealing here, in other words, with a mere attempt to suppress a message that some people find distasteful.”
So while the buffer rules offer the kind of tension justices love to weigh in on, they may also hesitate to act without other court decisions.
“On a human level, this case might be less likely to be taken up,” said Martha Davis, a law professor at Northeastern University. “Why not wait until a case comes up where you’re not examining the work of former colleagues?”
James Shearer knows many around him who don’t have the luxury of time. He helped found Spare Change News, a paper sold in the Boston area through the efforts of Cambridge nonprofit Homeless Empowerment Project.
Shearer fears ordinances like Worcester’s will prevent the homeless from selling these papers, earning money, and feeling worthwhile.
“It’s wrong on so many levels,” said the 55-year-old, who remembers his own past sleeping in shelters and on friends’ couches.
“This whole thing is a thinly veiled way of taking away panhandling and moving the homeless problem out of plain view so people don’t have to see it.”