The post-Reed assault on panhandling bans continued when a federal court in Massachusetts held that the City of Worcester’s ordinance prohibiting aggressive panhandling was content based and unconstitutional. In 2014, in an opinion authored by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that Worcester’s anti-panhandling ordinance was content neutral and constitutional. Following Reed, the Supreme Court granted a cert petition in the case, vacated the First Circuit decision, and remanded the matter back to the court of appeals. The First Circuit then vacated its opinion and judgment and remanded to the district court for further consideration in light of Reed. Back at the district court, the ordinances—which defined “begging” or “panhandling” as “asking for money or objects of value with the intention that the money or object be transferred at that time and at that place” and also defined “aggressive manner”—were found to be content based, since they applied to particular speech based on the content of the speech. The court went on to find that the ordinance was not narrowly tailored, as it was not the least restrictive means of achieving the governmental interest at stake.
The ACLU brought the case on behalf of two homeless residents of Worcester. According to the Boston Globe’s article about the case, citywide bans on public panhandling increased by 25% between 2011 and 2014. Critics of panhandling bans say that such bans criminalize speech by the poor, who may have limited means to obtain money. Supporters of panhandling bans cite the negative impacts, such as public safety concerns, that begging and panhandling have on urban places.
Thayer v. City of Worcester, ___ F. Supp. 3d ___, 2015 WL 6872450 (D. Mass. Nov. 9, 2015)