Southern Legal Counsel claims panhandling is constitutionally protected, 'is speech protected by the First Amendment'

By Carrie Bradon | Feb 20, 2019

FORT MYERS — Several southern Florida counties are arresting individuals asking for money, claiming that asking for money in public spaces without authorization from the government is illegal; other groups, however, claim that this is allowed in the First Amendment.

Southern Legal Counsel (SLC) filed a suit on Feb. 12, on behalf of those arrested, claiming that these arrests violate the First Amendment rights of these citizens. The lawsuit names St. Johns County Sheriff David B. Shoar and Florida Highway Patrol Director Gene Spaulding as defendants.

SLC claims that the arrests of homeless individuals is nothing more than discrimination based on status and that asking for charitable help or money is a protected activity by the First Amendment. SLC also went before a federal appeals court in 2019 to argue that sharing food with the homeless was an activity that should be protected by the First Amendment—a ruling which was upheld by the court.

SLC commented on why they believe this type of activity should be protected and why they are representing the homeless in this case.

“Asking for help is speech protected by the First Amendment,” Kirsten Anderson, litigation director for Southern Legal Counsel, told the Florida Record. “Despite prior court rulings declaring these statutes unconstitutional, the Florida Legislature has not addressed their constitutional deficiencies, and the statutes continue to be enforced by law enforcement agencies across the state.”

According to WLRN.com, the lawsuit was filed after 1,317 people were arrested in Broward County, 784 were arrested in Miami-Dade County and 615 were arrested in Palm Beach County in 2017 for panhandling.

To SLC, these arrests point to the justice system's willingness to violate constitutional rights in order to remove homeless people from the streets.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The outcome has yet to be determined though SLC hopes for a fair outcome that will minimize this category of arrests.

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