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Under longstanding practice, panhandlers asking for money are protected under the constitutional right to free speech, but their behavior is restricted. Most cities and towns have ordinances against “aggressive begging” — that is, blocking the path of a pedestrian, pursuing them once they’ve said no, or using threatening language or gestures. Aggressive panhandlers are subject to arrest.

But a current ordinance on the books in Worcester goes a step further — it prohibits solicitation of any person within 20 feet “of the entrance to, or parking area of” any bank, ATM, bus stop, theater, outdoor café, or other public place where people gather or are waiting in line. The ordinance, in extending the definition of “aggressive begging,” is in clear violation of panhandlers’ free speech rights, and has been challenged as such. But the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston struck down that challenge, saying that “there are particular, commonly acknowledged circumstances . . . in which solicitation can cause serious apprehensiveness, real or apparent coercion, physical offense, or even danger to the person addressed or to all parties.”


Now the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an appeal on Jan. 9. The Worcester ordinance seems to violate the spirit of the court’s ruling last June that struck down a Massachusetts law establishing 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. In that ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that streets and sidewalks “remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir. With respect to other means of communication, an individual confronted with an uncomfortable message can always turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site. Not so on public streets and sidewalks. There, a listener often encounters speech he might otherwise tune out.”

It’s ironic that a Supreme Court decision that overruled a law that protected women from threatening protesters might now be invoked to protect the rights of panhandlers. (And it’s doubly ironic that the author of the appeals ruling in Boston was former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who wrote a concurrence in the 2000 Hill v. Colorado decision that upheld buffer zone laws, and now hears occasional cases as a visiting justice on the circuit court of appeals.) But the Worcester ordinance serves a separate, less defensible purpose, and should be struck down.