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In our opinion: Silencing panhandlers violates First Amendment rights

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Panhandlers often provide an unwelcome reminder of poverty, so it's no surprise that many cities go out of their way to discourage panhandling and ban it altogether.

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It may be true that people don't want to be poor. Less obvious, however, is the reality that many people don't want to be reminded that poverty exists, or that they have a moral responsibility to do something about it.

Panhandlers often provide that unwelcome reminder, so it's no surprise that many cities go out of their way to discourage panhandling and ban it altogether. Businesses worry that panhandlers scare away customers, and civic leaders worry they give the community a bad reputation. Others have legitimate concerns about the panhandlers themselves, who sometimes make a living off of begging.

American Fork has an ordinance on the books that is the target of a lawsuit brought by Steve Ray Evans, an unemployed and homeless man who makes a living by holding a sign asking passing motorists for money.

Evans has already sued both Salt Lake City and the state of Utah in opposition to similar legislation. Evans' attorneys argued that panhandling is a protected form of free speech, and that denying Evans' right to hold his sign is a violation of his basic First Amendment rights.

People often forget that the Constitution protects speech that isn't necessarily pleasing to the majority. It is not worth sacrificing that right for the sake of a minor convenience. A person's motives for the speech, or his alleged sincerity, are not as important as the speech itself and the right to express it.

While Salt Lake City settled its case, the State of Utah refused to back down and ended up losing in federal court. It was ordered to pay the Utah Legal Clinic and Utah Civil Rights & Liberties Foundation a penalty of $40,000 to compensate them for Evans' legal fees. A judgment like that should have sent a clear enough signal to American Fork that its ordinance doesn't pass constitutional muster, but the city still insists on enforcing unacceptable limits on free speech.

The American Fork ordinance is particularly problematic because it prohibits specific words that can be used in handheld signs. So a sign that reads, "Have a Nice Day!" wouldn't be a problem, but a sign saying, "Please Help! I Need Work!" would be considered out of line. That creates a vague and unenforceable standard that compounds an already problematic statute. It should be tossed out altogether.

Of course, that means American Fork residents are likely to see Steve Ray Evans out on the street again. That's a very small price to pay to protect basic free speech rights. Even if some may question Evans' sincerity, they shouldn't try to silence all people who may be in need just to be rid of him.

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