Anti-panhandling law in Montana may face challenges

MISSOULA, Mont. — The Missoula City Council might have to change an ordinance it recently passed restricting panhandling following a federal judge’s decision in Idaho that barred the city of Boise from enacting most of its anti-panhandling ordinance.

City officials say the Missoula ordinance is similar to the Boise ordinance and could be challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Obviously, it suggests that a constitutional challenge to the Missoula ordinance would be successful,” Anna Conley, staff attorney for the ACLU of Montana, told the Missoulian.

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge wrote in the ruling Thursday that people have a right to ask others for charitable donations in public places, and the First Amendment right can’t be ignored just because panhandling makes some uncomfortable.

“Freedom of speech may be the most important right to protect in order to maintain our republic,” Lodge wrote. “In public places, all citizens must tolerate speech they don’t agree with, find to be a nuisance, insulting or outrageous.”

The Missoula City Council last month amended the law to prohibit sitting, sleeping or lying in some places to limit panhandling. The ACLU of Montana opposed the changes.

Missoula City Councilman Adam Hertz said he’s asked the Administration and Finance Committee to look into changing the ordinance at a meeting on Wednesday. He said the council could take up the issue next week.

“I think we ought to go back and take a look at this before we potentially take on a lawsuit from the ACLU that they already have proven essentially they can win,” said Hertz.

Mayor John Engen said he could veto the recent changes, but he’d rather the council amend the law. He said he’s talking with the ACLU about ways to move forward that preserve the intent of the ordinance while eliminating potential legal action.

“For better or for worse, a decision in Boise doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a similar decision in Montana, but if we can stay out of a courtroom in general, we all have more control over our destinies,” said Engen. “So we’ll see if there’s any room for agreement here with the ACLU.”

In the Idaho decision, Lodge said the aggressive solicitation portion of the Boise ordinance and the ban on soliciting donations in roadways appear to involve a compelling government interest, and those portions of the ordinance can go into effect as planned.

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Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com

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