Last Friday, a federal district court in Florida found that the City of Tampa’s restriction on requests for donation or payment—aimed at preventing panhandling and solicitation on city streets—violated the First Amendment. The court’s decision follows on several other decisions around the country that have invalidated bans on solicitation of donations on the grounds that such bans are not content neutral.
The Tampa ordinance in question prohibited requests for donations or payment. A nonprofit group, Homeless Helping Homeless, brought an action against the city on free speech grounds. The court reaffirmed that soliciting money is First Amendment-protected speech, that streets and sidewalks are a traditional public forum, and that the regulation—which regulates speech on the basis of message or subject matter—constituted a content based regulation. The city admitted that there was no compelling governmental interest to support its position, and thus the regulation failed strict scrutiny.
In ruling in favor of the plaintiff, district court Judge Merryday made clear his displeasure with the Reed v. Town of Gilbert decision and Supreme Court precedent on local issues generally in an interesting (and we think entertaining) way:
This action illustrates (as Reed illustrates) the frailties of governing discrete local issues, which are otherwise decided by local officials subject to periodic election, by force of intermittently issued decrees, which are conveyed as constitutional directives; which are issued by a majority (or, sometimes, only a plurality) of nine lawyers serving during “good behavior”; and which are uttered in the course of resolving a different dispute in another locality.
Special thanks to Kirsten Clanton of Southern Legal Counsel and Susan Trevarthen of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman for bringing this case to our attention.