Charlottesville says panhandlers lack standing for lawsuit

The City of Charlottesville has filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by five homeless men, who call the City’s Downtown panhandling ordinance unconstitutional. In the motion, filed on August 5, the City of Charlottesville argues that the plaintiffs do not have legal standing because they "fail to allege a plausible claim of ‘injury in fact.’" None of the men, the City argues, have been charged with or convicted of a violation.

“Does the City really want people to break the law in order to file a legal challenge to the Council’s effort to limit free speech?” says Jeff Fogel, attorney for the homeless men, in a statement.

Last August, City Council approved an ordinance that restricted "soliciting" (formerly called "panhandling") within 15’ of the entrance to banks and ATMs during business hours, and within 50’ in each direction of the two vehicular crossings on the Downtown Mall. (For background on the ordinance, click here.)

While the plaintiffs claim that the ordinance violates their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and equal protection, the City argues that “facially, the Ordinance does not impose an outright ban on begging on the Downtown Mall, in general, but simply narrowly limits the place where any soliciting may take place.” The response also cites the court case Hill v. Colorado, in which the court mentions multiple instances of "unwilling listener’s interest in avoiding unwanted communication."

In response, Fogel raises the example of a politician collecting signatures for candidacy, and questions whether a difference exists between the two situations. “It is a fundamental and critical principle of the First Amendment law that the government may not discriminate between different kinds of speech based on their content.”

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