People will not come where they do not feel safe. If we don’t do anything we will see continue to see erosion of our urban centers and our communities —Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful
SALT LAKE CITY — Aggressive panhandling or activities that impede traffic on state roads, off-ramps or underpasses would be prohibited under a bill narrowly endorsed by a House committee Wednesday.
The House Transportation Committee voted 5-4 to give HB101 a favorable recommendation. The bill takes aim at panhandling, but its sponsor, Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said it is also a public safety measure that applies solely to roads controlled by the state.
While supporters of the bill said it would help to discourage panhandling, opponents said the bill raises First Amendment concerns.
Community advocate Pamela Atkinson said it is more productive if Utahns who are concerned about homeless people contribute to existing direct service providers or plug the red “Real Change” meters throughout downtown Salt Lake City that help fund programs that house, feed and care for the poor.
Atkinson estimated that 70 percent of the money given to panhandlers is used to purchase drugs or alcohol.
“If people knew there is a better way to give money, certainly they would do it,” she said.
But Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City, said she was concerned for the “other 30 percent’’ who genuinely need assistance.
“I can’t imagine if you’re in a situation you need money so bad that you’re willing to put yourself out there on the side of the road and ask people to help you out. To me, that part is heartbreaking,” Fisher said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Fisher said her primary concern was another lawsuit over possible First Amendment violations.
A federal judge overturned part of a 2010 state law intended to rein in panhandling because it was overly broad.
“I personally don’t feel that the state of Utah can afford another lawsuit. We are constantly putting state funds into lawsuits. I believe, personally, there are other ways to handle this,” Fisher said.
But Nielson said he believes HB101 was carefully crafted to address the First Amendment concerns raised in the judge’s ruling.
“If we only pass laws we are certain won’t be challenged in court, then we’ve given up on the whole balance of powers and our responsibility,” Nielson said.
Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, said he, too, has concerns about the First Amendment issues in the proposed legislation.
“I’m concerned this might have a chilling effect. I still think this gets in the area that we're limiting what people can say or do and where they can go,” Lifferth said.
Nielson said he believes HB101, as currently drafted, puts the state on legal “solid ground." It was amended by the committee Wednesday to permit “temporary spontaneous demonstrations.”
He conceded the possibility of litigation, but said lawmakers have a responsibility to "protect the public and to protect communities from actions that are corrosive to the character of communities."
The bottom line, he said, is that “people will not come where they do not feel safe. If we don’t do anything, we will see continue to see erosion of our urban centers and our communities."
Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said she appreciated Nielson’s willingness to amend the bill to add an exception for temporary, spontaneous demonstrations. “But I don’t think, however, it saves the bill from some serious First Amendment problems,” she said.
While HB101 strikes the language a federal judge determined was unconstitutional, it would prohibit any activity that blocks or impedes traffic — using as examples demonstrating or picketing, distributing leaflets, holding signs, which are “traditionally protected First Amendment activities,” Lowe said.
The issue might best be addressed by existing traffic laws and local government ordinances on First Amendment expression, she said.
“If you want address the problems that (U.S. District Court) Judge (Ted) Stewart had in the Wilkinson case, this is not the way to go about doing that. This may in fact land you in front of that judge again to revisit the changes you made in response to his ruling,” Lowe said.