Don’t take away First Amendment rights of squeegee kids
Nov 04, 2019 | 11:53 AM
Baltimore City ought to swiftly reject The Baltimore Sun’s recommendation to start a 30-day enforcement spree of its local solicitation ordinance (“Baltimore’s ‘squeegee kid’ issue has reached a tipping point; it’s time for a break,” Oct. 29). This ordinance is outdated and ripe for a constitutional challenge. The First Amendment protects requests for charity in public spaces, and streets and medians qualify as traditional public forums. Since the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Gilbert, every panhandling and solicitation ordinance challenged in federal court has been found constitutionally deficient. Among them are laws with features similar or identical to Baltimore City’s law. In addition, post-Reed, over 30 local jurisdictions have voluntarily repealed their solicitation ordinances.
Baltimore City simply has no right to “clear the streets” of citizens exercising constitutionally protected speech. Further, enforcement of such nuisance ordinances, typically directed at individuals experiencing homelessness, including homeless youth, are counter-productive. Fines and arrest records hinder efforts to obtain services, housing and employment. Baltimore City’s own 2018 report “Journey to Jobs: Understanding and Eliminating Barriers Imposed on Homeless Jobseekers,” recognized the harmful effects of panhandling laws that criminalize behavior undertaken to survive, and found that “people who are already vulnerable to over-policing become even more at risk of arrest when their mere presence on the street can be a crime.” The Sun’s notion that these laws can be enforced without anyone getting arrested is unrealistic and naïve.
One would think that the press would be a partner in protecting free speech rights from infringement by the government. Instead, it chooses to invite such infringement against some of our most vulnerable youth. Rather than accepting The Baltimore Sun’s ill-considered invitation to enforce an unconstitutional ordinance, the city should repeal the ordinance and continue efforts to provide voluntary alternatives for squeegee kids.
The writer is managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project.