ACLU takes aim at Everett anti-panhandling ordinance

EVERETT — The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on Wednesday sent a letter to Mayor Ray Stephanson and the Everett City Council, urging them to not adopt an anti-panhandling ordinance, implying the city could face a lawsuit if it did.

“Locally and nationally, the ACLU has successfully challenged ordinances containing provisions similar to, or even less restrictive than, the anti-solicitation provisions” contained in the proposed ordinance, wrote Jennifer Shaw, the deputy director of the ACLU of Washington.

The ordinance is one of three measures the city is considering to combat chronic problems with street nuisances associated with the homeless population. The issue was on the City Council’s agenda Wednesday night.

The council chambers were filled and many people came prepared to address the ordinance. The council did not make a decision by press time, however.

The ordinance would prohibit panhandling or otherwise soliciting for money or services from median strips, or within 60 feet of an intersection with a traffic signal, which would apply to most major intersections in the city.

The ACLU’s letter states that the ordinance is both unconstitutional and unnecessary.

“Federal and state courts repeatedly have made it clear that asking for money in a traditional public forum such as a sidewalk is constitutionally protected free speech,” Shaw wrote.

Shaw wrote that the proposed law creates unnecessary distinctions between types of permitted speech. For example, someone couldn’t hold a sign asking for an immediate exchange of money but could hold a sign that encourages passersby to visit a website or address to make the exchange.

Protesters, companies, politicians, religious organizations and students soliciting donations for a fundraiser will continue to be able to operate in a right-of-way, so long as the actual exchange of money or services takes place elsewhere. Only panhandling is singled out, Shaw wrote.

Shaw’s letter also addressed the city’s argument that public safety is the reason for the ordinance by noting that it is already illegal in Everett to “beg in a manner that hinders or obstructs the free passage of any person in a public place.”

In urging the council to reject the ordinance, Shaw wrote that they “should not invite litigation by adopting this unconstitutional measure.”

The ordinance focuses on conduct, not speech, said David Hall, Everett’s deputy city attorney.

“We drafted the ordinance very carefully to avoid infringing on anybody’s constitutionally protected free speech,” Hall said.

And addressing safety concerns is a legitimate role for local government, he said.

“We’ve talked to the ACLU about their concerns and read the same case law that they did, and it is our view that the ordinance is constitutional and entirely defensible,” Hall said.

The ordinance is one of three the city has considered that has come under fire.

A second proposed rule would have prohibited anyone from sitting or lying on sidewalks along Smith Avenue between the Everett Gospel Mission and Everett Station.

The I-5 underpass near the mission was the site of a homeless encampment. Much of it was thinned out in March and new fences were installed, but some people have been returning to the area.

That ordinance was removed from the council’s agenda Tuesday after the city received pressure from members of the Community Streets Initiative task force.

The task force met last year and drew up a long list of recommendations to address problems of homelessness, addiction, mental health and petty crime in the city.

The so-called “no-sit/no-lie” ordinance was not one of those recommendations, and Sylvia Anderson, co-chair of the task force and CEO of the mission, said she told city officials that the task force would never have supported such a measure.

The third proposed ordinance would establish an alcohol impact area covering much of downtown and commercial areas of the city, restricting the kinds and amounts of certain cheap alcoholic beverages that retailers could sell.

That ordinance passed 4-2, despite an attempt by councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher to table it until there was a clearer schedule to implement the rest of the Streets Initiative’s recommendations. She also expressed concern that it would push the problem into other neighborhoods and not address the underlying causes of alcoholism.

“I do know you can’t cut off the supply of it and expect people to stop drinking it,” she said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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