Worcester’s buffer zone should not apply to beggars

The US Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has become known for its sweeping interpretations of the First Amendment. It has extended free-speech protections to campaign cash, violent video games, corporations, and, more recently, anti-abortion crusaders protesting around women’s health clinics. Now the court has a chance to say whether poor people have the same rights as corporations and the well-connected.

Poverty is not a crime, but in Worcester, begging for money is — within 20 feet of bus stops, cafes, parks, ATM machines, “and any other place of public assembly.” Under a city ordinance adopted in 2013, panhandlers can be arrested in these zones even if they are just silently holding a cup or sign asking for donations. On Friday, the Supreme Court will consider whether to take up a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and others against the Worcester ban.

Other cities have also adopted anti-panhandling “buffer zones,” and these laws are now up against the Supreme Court’s McCullen v. Coakley decision of last year, which banned buffer zones around abortion clinics. In that decision, Roberts said that the First Amendment protects uncomfortable or disturbing speech, even in cases where distraught women are confronted on their way into a health clinic. Indeed, he said the “uncomfortable message” encountered on a public sidewalk that a person “might otherwise tune out” is precisely what the First Amendment is intended to protect.

Contrast this with the language in the First Circuit Appeals court ruling that upheld the Worcester ban, written just a week before the McCullen decision by former justice David Souter (sitting as a visiting judge). He said the anti-panhandling ban was acceptable within the buffer zones because being confronted by beggars “would reasonably give rise to discomfort to someone stuck at a bus stop,” or cause “apprehensiveness” in someone with a wallet full of cash. Worcester, we have a problem.


Understandably, supporters of the begging bans have tried to parse the difference between what they deem “aggressive” tactics by panhandlers and the “peaceful counseling” of anti-abortion protesters. Worcester’s city solicitor David Moore made the distinction in a New York Times interview, saying the action outside abortion clinics “was extremely benign counseling.” It’s galling to see such revisionism taking hold, when many can recall abortion protests around clinics — not to mention bombings, arson, and shootings — that were anything but benign. In its claim, Worcester doesn’t demonstrate a history of actual violence involving panhandlers, just the “apprehension” they cause.


There are other distinctions as well. The McCullen buffer zone case had to grapple with competing constitutional rights: those of the protesters against those of women trying to access a constitutionally protected legal abortion. The Worcester case is simpler, according to Sarah Wunsch of the ACLU. Panhandlers may be irritating, but “there is no constitutional right to be free from speech that you find offensive or that makes you uncomfortable.” The real issue, she says, is “are we going to have two different First Amendments, one for people who have views that might be unpopular but who have the right to express them, and another one for poor people?”

In the McCullen case, Roberts said there were less restrictive ways to protect women from harassment at clinics that didn’t infringe on free speech, such as enforcing existing laws against assault. Similarly, Worcester and other cities already have ample laws barring aggressive or disorderly conduct by panhandlers or anyone else. And how about the city’s ability to address the underlying causes of panhandling? The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty describes strategies some cities have adopted, such as connecting the homeless and mentally ill with services, that eventually reduce the incidence of begging on the streets.


I supported the buffer zone laws around abortion clinics and I was disappointed to see the Roberts court strike them down. But the constitutional questions in that case were much deeper, and the threat to a vulnerable population greater, than the problem posed by someone chanting “spare change” on a sidewalk. If anti-abortion protesters — mostly peaceful, sometimes not — deserve to be heard and seen, surely we stand to look a beggar in the eye.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.