Williams pulls panhandling ban until further review

The Williams City Council last week temporarily killed its plans to criminalize panhandling after a federal judge ruled earlier this month that banning such solicitation violates the First Amendment.

The Williams ordinance restricting panhandling, which was up for second reading and adoption at last week’s city council meeting, was similar to aggressive panhandling bans adopted by the Sacramento City Council and other cities throughout the state in order to appease business owners and members of the public who feel harassed by people claiming to be down on their luck.

“All panhandling ordinances in California are very similar,” said Williams City Attorney Ann Siprelle, who urged the council to pull the ordinance until it could be rewritten.

The ordinance, which the Williams City Council introduced at their June meeting, would have prohibited what Williams Police Chief Ed Anderson called aggressive panhandling, as well as any solicitation within 15 feet of banks, automatic teller machines, and roadway medians.

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California, who prevailed in the lawsuit against Sacramento, claimed that such laws violate expressive activity that is protected by the First Amendment.

“There has been a couple of law review articles on this that state that probably all are unconstitutional because they restrict people’s free speech rights,” Siprelle said.

While the judge in the Sacramento case gave leave for the Sacramento City Council to rewrite its ordinance, any restriction on free speech could still face challenges by advocates for the homeless, who believe solicitation is a legal and safe means for homeless individuals to obtain money for necessities.

According to the American Bar Association, the problem with solicitation bans is that governments fail to demonstrate how traffic safety, aesthetics, business, tourism, and the general comfort of people who do not like being approached by panhandlers, could be considered “compelling” enough reasons to make content-based distinctions on free speech.

U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr., who heard the Sacramento case, agreed that it may be bothersome to some people to be approached and asked for money, but the rights to free speech must be considered.

The Williams City Council last week gave direction to City Administrator Frank Kennedy to review and possibly rewrite the ordinance to pass legal muster.

Siprelle said it could be several months before the council takes up the panhandling issue again.