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Balancing Civic Pride and Civil Rights

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Atlanta is hardly the only city to crack down on panhandling. And here with some national perspective is Maria Foscarinis, who is executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. It's an advocacy organization.

Tell us, have other cities simply banned panhandling from downtown?

Ms. MARIA FOSCARINIS (Executive Director, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty): Yes. Some cities have banned panhandling. Some cities have banned particular types of panhandling, for instance what they name aggressive panhandling. Other cities have banned panhandling outside ATMs, for example, or within very specific defined parameters of a city, which is something like what Atlanta has done. Atlanta's ordinance is actually extremely specific compared to some others that I've seen, but also contains an overall panhandling ban.

SIEGEL: You would like to see--or in some cases have seen--these ordinances challenged? Do they stand up in court?

Ms. FOSCARINIS: Yes. These ordinances have, in fact, been challenged, and they have, at times, been struck down. A number of courts have said that these ordinances violate free speech rights of homeless people and poor people, and that begging is actually expressive conduct or expressive--is expression. In other words, it expresses a request, but also, more than that, it expresses a condition, a condition of poverty that is communicated through the request for help.

SIEGEL: But while there are people out on city streets panhandling--you mentioned the phrase `aggressive panhandling,' which comes up in this debate often--are there some bright lines that have been recognized by the courts as to what defines aggressive panhandling, which is not expressive, which is interfering with other people in their desire to simply walk around their city?

Ms. FOSCARINIS: Sure. Certainly threatening somebody or touching another person, making them feel that they are in danger of being assaulted, would be something that could stand up in court. The problem with this is that this is already prohibited by existing laws, and by existing laws that apply to everybody, not just people who are too poor, too sick or make us too uncomfortable.

SIEGEL: Was there a whole body of law governing public begging before recent decades, or is this a more recent phenomenon?

Ms. FOSCARINIS: It is a phenomenon that has come and gone over decades and probably centuries. I mean, there were vagrancy statutes in the '60s and '70s that were struck down ultimately by the Supreme Court because they were considered to be too broad, too vague. There were poor laws, and the English had poor laws. These kinds of efforts to essentially vanish or make less visible poor people, people we'd rather not see, have a very long history. There's been a resurgence of these laws...

SIEGEL: But this is about an activity, though. This isn't--and this activity...

Ms. FOSCARINIS: Right.

SIEGEL: ...is not sleeping in the streets. It's accosting people and asking them for money.

Ms. FOSCARINIS: Well, that's exactly the question, and that's precisely the legal and the constitutional question: Is this conduct, or is it expression? And that's the issue, that's a threshold issue that courts address. It's usually somebody asking another person for help. That's speech. And it's often considered political speech. It's expressing a condition about society, a need often accompanied by directly political...

SIEGEL: But washing my windshield on my car while I'm stopped at a red light, for example, to then ask for a contribution, that's not expression. That's an act, isn't it? Isn't that behavior?

Ms. FOSCARINIS: Right, that is conduct. And I'm not necessarily putting that under the rubric of begging or panhandling.

SIEGEL: Your sense of the Atlanta ordinance? Do you think that's likely to stand up on judicial review or be struck down?

Ms. FOSCARINIS: I think parts of it will be struck down, but parts of it may be upheld.

SIEGEL: Maria Foscarinis, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. FOSCARINIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And Maria Foscarinis is executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, DC.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.