Earlier comments by ACLU got city council's attentionHampton, VA--The ACLU of Virginia today sent a letter to the members of Hampton City Council asking them to amend a recently adopted ordinance that bans expression protected by the First Amendment in a traditional public forum.
The ordinance prohibits individuals from soliciting money from or offering goods or services to the occupants of motor vehicles while "on or adjacent to a highway." Although banning such activities in a roadway where cars travel is a reasonable restriction intended to protect public safety, sidewalks adjacent to streets are considered public forums where such speech is protected.
Shortly after the new ordinance was passed last month, the ACLU of Virginia made it clear to public officials in Hampton that it was unconstitutional. According to news reports, city council is now considering amending the ordinance to remove the speech restrictions on public sidewalks. The amendments could be voted on as early as tomorrow.
The City of Newport News passed a similar non-solicitation ordinance about the same time as Hampton, but with much vaguer language. However, soon after passage--and after the ACLU voiced its objections--city officials announced that it would not be enforced against individuals on sidewalks.
"In difficult times, when there are more homeless people asking for donations and more day laborers seeking work, there is a tendency to pass these kinds of blatantly unconstitutional ordinances," said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis.
"But local government officials, out of step with the concept of free speech, try to clear the sidewalks of people just because they consider them to be less desirable members of our society," added Willis. "These individuals have a story to tell, whether it is the need for a job or for more money, and they have a right to tell it while standing in public places such as sidewalks. We can't make poverty or a bad economy go away by silencing its messengers, but that is exactly what we seem to be trying to accomplish with these ordinances."
"Elected officials need to be reminded that the same constitutional principle of free speech that gives them the right to hand out literature and ask for contributions to their campaigns also protects the right of homeless persons to ask for donations," said Willis.
The ACLU's letter, written by ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg, is available online at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/08-10-10.pdf.
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022