After receiving a demand letter from the NHCLU, on February 18, 2014, the Rochester City Council, by a vote of 9 to 0, repealed in its entirety an anti-panhandling ordinance it passed in July 2013 that violated the free speech rights of the poor and homeless. This ordinance was intended to prevent so-called “aggressive” begging, but in fact it prohibited a large amount of peaceful speech.
For example, the ordinance prevented poor people from doing such things as peacefully holding a sign asking for help (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 banned peaceful panhandling on sidewalks and other public spaces in the entire downtown/business district area of Rochester. In addition, the ordinance was limited to those transactions most likely to be initiated by the poor—i.e., solicitation for an “immediate” donation—while excluding other forms of solicitation. Unfortunately, the City also selectively enforced the ordinance since its passage by targeting panhandlers, while allowing the Rochester Fire Department to solicit funds for charity in the downtown area in violation of the ordinance without any repercussions.
In December 2013, the NHCLU sent a letter to the City of Rochester stating its concerns about the constitutionality of the anti-panhandling ordinance. As the NHCLU explained, if the ordinance was not repealed in full, the NHCLU would file a lawsuit and seek an immediate injunction against the ordinance.
The NHCLU commends the City’s decision to fully repeal the anti-panhandling ordinance and its thoughtful consideration as to how the ordinance violated the free speech rights of New Hampshire’s poorest citizens. The City’s repeal of the ordinance sends a powerful message to other cities and towns in New Hampshire that the NHCLU will aggressively protect the First Amendment rights of the economically disadvantaged in this state.