The New Hampshire Civil Liberties has sent a letter to the City of Rochester stating its concerns about the constitutionality of Rochester’s anti-panhandling ordinance.
This ordinance is intended to prevent so-called “aggressive” begging, but in fact it prohibits a great deal of peaceful conduct which is a protected form of expression. For example, the ordinance prevents people from doing such things as holding a sign asking for help, or soliciting (i) within 50 feet of any entrance or exit of any business or organization during its business hours, (ii) within 50 feet of an ATM or bank, (iii) in a bus shelter or at a bus stop, and (iv) in a median of any public road. These prohibitions effectively ban peaceful panhandling on sidewalks and other public spaces in the entire downtown/business district area of Rochester.
Numerous courts throughout the country have ruled that peaceful panhandling is protected expression under the First Amendment.
Seeing panhandlers in a city makes many people uncomfortable, but as one homeless advocate in Maine has explained, “I can tell you from experience that it is much more uncomfortable to experience poverty than it is to witness poverty.” People do not panhandle in the cold because it is a great way to pass the time. They do it because they are desperate and feel they have no alternative. And there are already laws in New Hampshire prohibiting individuals from interfering with traffic and from engaging in threatening behavior in a public place.
The NHCLU is here to protect the First Amendment rights of all the people of New Hampshire, and that includes making sure that poor people have the right to engage in peaceful speech in public places.