Updated: December 20, 2012 at 12:00 am
A federal judge has spoken. Our city government’s new begging ban violates the First Amendment. It’s not surprising in the least, and Gazette editorials have said the same thing.
The City Council approved a “no-solicitation zone” in late November to prevent Beggars from working central downtown and Acacia Park. The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued, claiming the ban violates the right to freely associate and speak. Federal Judge Marcia Krieger agreed:
“The Constitution cannot be satisfied by mere rhetorical gymnastics,” Krieger said. She explained that city officials could not enforce the law without discriminating “based on the content of speech.”
If one stands on a sidewalk and prays to Jesus for cash, the person exercises free speech and religion. City officials clearly violate the First Amendment if they cite a person for praying. Yet, they had every intention of using the law against anyone who appeared to linger for the purpose of obtaining gifts from passers-by. The Constitution expressly restricts the authority of government to punish expressions on a basis of content.
The judge’s ruling puts enforcement of the law on hold until such time city officials might successfully defend it at trial. It’s hard to imagine a meaningful defense.
While The Gazette agrees with the court’s ruling, we acknowledge the problem Mayor Steve Bach and a majority on council want to resolve. None have it out for the First Amendment, and each only wants to help hard-working downtown business owners who believe the presence of beggars frightens shoppers away.
We admonish only two council members who most enthusiastically supported the law: Tim Leigh and Scott Hente. Leigh, sans due process, boldly condemned all beggars as “criminals” when explaining his support. The same politician brags about his own violation of the law regarding the Manitou Incline.
“I’m heading there now to break the law,” Leigh told the Gazette in January, as he headed off to trespass on the Incline. “I know it’s illegal to do right now, but it is so pervasively used. It’s like one of those laws that’s so commonly broken, how do you feel bad about it?”
Yet, part of Leigh’s rationale for criminalizing begging — an activity protected by law — was that begging is common. On one hand, we should violate a law if everyone else does. On the other, we should pass a law if a protected activity becomes too common. Weird.
Hente, another enthusiastic anti-begging law supporter, has also thumbed his nose at no-trespassing signs and bragged about doing so. Politicians who proudly violate property rights should not seek to condemn a common activity that is protected by law.
Because The Gazette empathizes with downtown businesses, we want a solution to their concern about beggars. We have suggested placement of more cops, and/or uniformed civilian patrollers, to enforce the reasonable law against “aggressive” begging. Men and women in uniform always create a sense of public safety and probably reduce crime. Today, after the judge’s ruling, one councilwoman seems to agree.
“I’ve said all year that increased police presence and enforcement, and especially a commitment to report from business owners and citizens, is what has been needed all along to improve this downtown commerce area without affecting the vitality that comes from people being on the streets or (exposing the city to) a lawsuit,” Councilwoman Lisa Czelatdko said, reacting to the judge’s ruling.
Absolutely, councilor. More boots on the ground will address the problem without confronting our most fundamental rights.