Des Moines, Iowa — Today the ACLU of Iowa sent letters to four Iowa cities, informing them that their "panhandling" ordinances violate free speech and must be repealed.
Such ordinances are unconstitutional because they wrongly shut down the free speech of people asking for help. In some cities, such ordinances have been used to stop people from merely holding a sign asking for money or other assistance or from putting out a container for donations.
Today's letters were sent to Bettendorf, Davenport, Coralville, and Dubuque.
ACLU of Iowa Staff Attorney Shefali Aurora said, "Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help is not only unconstitutional but also inhumane. It only prolongs their homelessness. The only true solutions to homelessness are better access to housing and services in our communities."
"Rather than criminalizing panhandling through these ordinances, cities can modify restrictions and infrastructure to optimize pedestrian and traffic safety while avoiding being prejudicial to those in poverty or limiting free speech. We urge the cities to promptly repeal their ordinances to avoid the risk of litigation," Aurora said.
Second Round of Letters
This round of letters follows a similar effort in 2018 when the ACLU sent letters to three Iowa cities that had unconstitutional panhandling ordinances. Those three—Des Moines, Council Bluffs, and Grimes—have since repealed their ordinances.
Aurora said the ACLU encourages all Iowa cities—not just the cities to which letters were sent—to take a close look at their ordinances to make sure they don’t have bans or permit requirements regarding panhandling or solicitation. "A city that did not receive a letter should not assume that its ordinances will pass constitutional muster," Aurora said.
Letters Have Three Asks
The letters sent by the ACLU spell out what a series of court decisions have made clear, Aurora said. "Laws that outlaw panhandling are unconstitutional because they wrongly block individuals’ free speech rights. Such ordinances are also ineffective because by criminalizing poverty, all they do is drive people further into homelessness. As a result, a number of larger cities around the country are repealing these draconian ordinances."
The ACLU is asking three things of the cities sent today's letters:
- First and foremost, the letters ask each city to repeal its unconstitutional panhandling ordinance. The letters point out that a city taking the step of formally repealing its ordinance is vital to protect anyone who is asking for help from a potential violation of their rights. Repealing the ordinance will also protect the city and its officers from liability.
- Next, the ACLU asks each city to instruct officers not to enforce its unconstitutional ordinance while the city goes through the process to repeal the ordinance. The ACLU also asks the city to notify it when that is accomplished.
- The ACLU has also asked that any pending prosecutions under the ordinance be dismissed.
These asks are being made in part because the City of Grimes did not take these steps and ran into problems. "What happened in Grimes provides a cautionary tale," said Aurora.
Back in 2018, after receiving a letter from the ACLU notifying it about the problems with its panhandling ordinance, Grimes officials had agreed not to enforce it. But that message was not communicated to the Polk County sheriff's deputies who provide law enforcement for the city, and those deputies continued to enforce the panhandling law. To its credit, when notified, Grimes worked promptly to formally repeal the ordinance.
The basis for the series of letters is an important 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which struck down these types of content-based regulations of free speech. As a result, since 2019 courts across the country have struck down more than 70 anti-panhandling ordinances and this number continues to grow. In addition, many cities are ceasing enforcement of panhandling ordinances or repealing them completely.
In the meantime, we encourage anyone who has been cited, arrested, or told to move on because they were asking for help or money to contact the ACLU of Iowa by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or sending a letter to ACLU of Iowa Legal Intake, 505 5th Ave. #808, Des Moines, IA 50309.