City's panhandling ban put on hold indefinitely

JOHN SCHROYER Updated: December 18, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: December 18, 2012

The city’s new panhandling ban has been put on hold indefinitely by a preliminary injunction handed down Tuesday by a federal judge who said the measure violates the First Amendment.

The law has not been overturned and will go into effect Wednesday as scheduled, but the injunction prohibits the city from enforcing the measure unless it prevails at a trial.

The trial will be scheduled by a magistrate and probably won’t be held for at least two months, Colorado Springs City Attorney Chris Melcher said.

The so-called “no-solicitation zone” was approved by the City Council in late November.

The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city immediately and charged that the ban violated the right to freedom of speech.

Federal judge Marcia Krieger agreed with the group.

“The Constitution cannot be satisfied by mere rhetorical gymnastics,” Krieger said Tuesday, adding the law “would require the city to discriminate based on the content of speech.”

Krieger said it is likely the ACLU would prevail at a trial and could succeed in overturning the law.

The ban was set to go into effect Dec. 19, and the city had planned to begin handing out tickets Jan. 19 after a monthlong “public education campaign.”

Krieger noted in her ruling that the city already has a ban on “aggressive panhandling,” which prohibits panhandlers and solicitors from repeatedly asking for donations, blocking people’s paths, following people and more.

The judge also said she couldn’t find anything in City Council meeting records where council members discussed any other type of solicitation aside from panhandling, contrary to what Councilman Merv Bennett said when he testified at a Dec. 13 court hearing.

Bennett had said that the council discussed all types of solicitors, including charity workers such as Salvation Army bell ringers, beggars with signs silently asking for donations and street performers.

Under the ban, charity workers would still be allowed to solicit donations downtown as long as they are on private property and have permission from the property owners.

ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein was swamped with supporters upon leaving the courtroom and said only that he was “pleased that the court agreed that this overbroad ordinance adversely impacts free speech.”

Melcher wouldn’t confirm whether the city would pursue a trial and said he would confer with Mayor Steve Bach and City Council members on the next course of action.

“We continue to believe that the ordinance is constitutional and an appropriate effort by the city to protect our downtown merchants and residents, our visitors, families and our community,” Melcher said.

Melcher added that the ACLU’s victory Tuesday does not mean the organization will succeed at trial. The lengthy timeline will give the city more time to prepare and submit more evidence and arguments.

That, Melcher said, could change the judge’s mind.

The no-solicitation zone encompasses 12 city blocks, including Acacia Park.

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