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Is Panhandling A Form Of Free Speech? A Lawsuit Challenging Fall River's Ban Says Yes

A man panhandles on Revere Beach Parkway in Everett in October. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A man panhandles on Revere Beach Parkway in Everett in October. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The ACLU of Massachusetts is challenging the city of Fall River’s enforcement of a state law that prohibits panhandling on public roadways.

The ban has long been in place in Massachusetts, though it is seldom enforced across the state’s towns and cities. But in Fall River, police since 2018 have filed more than 150 criminal complaints “against some of the city’s most vulnerable residents," the ACLU claims.

The lawsuit was filed March 28 on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and two residents currently experiencing homelessness who have been the subject of “numerous criminal complaints” by local police. The department, as well as individual officers, the city and Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn are named as defendants.

A preliminary injunction hearing was held Tuesday. Judge Raffi Yessayan has taken the matter under advisement and a decision is due on May 9.

The suit claims that "requests for charity are constitutionally-protected speech" and that the law creates “identity-based restriction of that speech.”

ACLU Massachusetts senior attorney Ruth Bourquin said in a statement that the law is "a misguided punishment for being poor," noting its specific exemptions.

“Under this statute, if someone holds up a ‘newspapers for sale’ sign next to a roadway, the request for funds is lawful. If a sign says ‘save the whales,’ the request is lawful, if the sign seeks money for an organization with a permit from local police," she says. "But if a sign says ‘homeless – anything helps,’ the request is strictly illegal. That’s offensive to the Constitution and to the values we hold as a Commonwealth.”

Local ordinances were struck down in Worcester and Lowell in recent years, after the ACLU also challenged them in lawsuits. In each case, the bans were ruled unconstitutional.

Similar bans have also been thrown out in other states, like Colorado, Florida and Maine. Most recently, a federal judge in Hot Springs, Arkansas, ruled that the city’s ban on all physical interactions between pedestrians and motorists was unconstitutional.

The Fall River mayor's office did not return a request for comment.

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Laney Ruckstuhl Twitter Digital Producer
Laney Ruckstuhl is a freelance digital producer.

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