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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ordinance Banning Begging is Content-Based Speech

The City of Charlottesville passed an ordinance that prohibited the solicitation of money within an area of outdoor cafes and restaurants, known as the “Downtown Mall.” A group of men described as “reliant to a certain extent on begging,” brought a civil rights lawsuit against the City challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance. The plaintiffs argued that the ordinance violated their First Amendment right to beg and restrained their speech and livelihood.

The challenged ordinance provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to solicit money or other things of value, or to solicit the sale of goods or services:
. . .
(9) On the Downtown Mall within fifty (50) feet (in any direction) of 2nd Street West and 4th Street East, when those streets are open to vehicular traffic.
. . .
Solicit means to request an immediate donation of money or other thing of value from another person, regardless of the solicitor’s purpose or intended use of the money or other thing of value. A solicitation may take the form of, without limitation, the spoken, written, or printed word, or by other means of communication (for example: an outstretched hand, an extended cup or hat, etc.). 
(c) Any person violating the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.
The district court held that the plaintiffs did have standing to sue the City but dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiffs failed to allege a cognizable First Amendment claim. The district court further found the ordinance to be content-neutral and a permissible time, place, and manner restriction.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s dismissal of the action. The court reasoned that First Amendment protections are the strongest in traditional public forums, such as the Downtown Mall at issue. The court found that the City's ordinance prohibited content-based speech because it distinguished between types of solicitation. Also, the court found that the ordinance lacked a statement of purpose to lay out the reasons for its enactment. As such, the Fourth Circuit held that the complaint did state a valid First Amendment claim and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings. Clatterbuck v. City of Charlottesville, No. 12-1149 (4th Cir. February 21, 2013).

Post Authored by Erin Baker, Ancel Glink.


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