Will Warwick take the high road that municipalities like Providence and Newport have done, and reject attempts to enact or enforce punitive anti-panhandling ordinances that seek to "solve" poverty by hiding it from public view? Or will they take the low road, like Cranston, which, after being successfully sued by the ACLU over an ordinance banning "solicitation on roadways," decided to pass a cosmetically revised ordinance last month that will once again be challenged?
We will find out soon, because on Monday evening, the Warwick Ordinance Committee will be hearing an anti-panhandling proposal that would make it illegal for any person to stand in any roadway "or stand on the median adjacent to the roadway." The ACLU has submitted a letter to City Council members that argues that such an ordinance "would harm individuals who are struggling with homelessness or destitution and who seek to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to solicit donations. Rather than addressing the problems that have forced people to engage in panhandling in the first place, this proposal instead seeks to punish them for their poverty."
Our letter further points out that the proposal would "make illegal a wide swath of [other] First Amendment activity that has gone on for decades without serious incident, harming the free speech rights of many people, not just panhandlers. Assuming the ordinance were not selectively enforced against the poor, it would "bar firefîghters from continuing their long-standing charitable 'Fill the Boot' campaigns. It would prohibit school teams, cheerleaders and non-profit groups from making use of this long-recognized method of obtaining needed financial support. It would impose significant restrictions on the First Amendment rights of organized labor engaged in peaceful picketing activities."
We're counting on the City to reject this troubling and constitutionally problematic proposal. Will City officials do the right and fair thing? We will find out soon enough.