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Massachusetts SJC finds Panhandling to be Protected Speech under the 1st Amendment

The Massachusetts SJC held today that the First Amendment Protects Panhandling as free Speech, striking down a local Fall River Ordinance attempting to preclude panhandling on public streets.  In Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless v. City of Fall River, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that a local law restriction Panhandling, stopping cars and requesting money was a content based restriction on speech and prohibited by the First Amendment.  The Fall River ordnance only prohibited Panhandling and did not prohibit solicitation for other purposes, such as school events and Fire Department fund raisers.  The SJC stated that it is clear that soliciting contributions is protected by the 1st Amendment.

The Court also staled that it is clear that public ways are traditional public forums.  This means that on the streets, people have the right to share and express their ideas.  It is why someone can hold a sign on the side of the road in support of the politician they are supporting for office.  The SJC also indicated that it was clear that the Fall River local ordinance was a content restriction on speed and had to survive strict security, meaning that the law must survive the most rigorous view to be upheld as constitutional.

The Panhandling law was a content based restriction on speech because it only regulated someone making one type of form of expression, asking for money.

What is Strict Scrutiny?

Strict Scrutiny requires the Government to show that a regulation is narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest and it is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.  The SJC found that the regulation could not survive a review under the strict scrutiny standard and struck down the law as an impermissible regulation of Free Speech.  The SJC held that the Government could try to pass another law aimed at protecting public safety.

In this case, the Fall River Ordinance did not try to regular all solicitation of motorist, but only panhandling.  The City could pass a law that prohibits all speech on certain dangerous intersections on the ground that it is a public safety hazard.  In that case, the Government would not be passing a law regulating speech based on its content.

The SJC decision was a proper application of the First Amendment; the City could attempt to seek writ of certiorari from the United States Supreme Court; I would not expect the United States Supreme Court to take the case as I think the Massachusetts SJC applied the law correctly and the law was a clear violation of the First Amendment.

The ACLU hailed the decision of the SJC as a victory for civil rights.

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