ACLU Urges 6 Vermont Communities To Repeal Anti-Panhandling Rules

Aug 30, 2018

This week, the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to six cities and towns demanding they repeal local ordinances that ban panhandling. 

The letters cited a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that expanded protections for free speech and were sent to Barre City, Bennington, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Rutland Town and Winooski.

The request for towns to change their rules is not just happening in Vermont — it’s coordinated with other organizations targeting local ordinances in 12 different states.

Jay Diaz, staff attorney for the ACLU of Vermont, said 25 cases over similar ordinances around the country have been struck down since the 2015 Supreme Court decision.

Jay Diaz spoke to VPR's Henry Epp. Listen to their conversation above.

Diaz added that even if local rules against begging for money are rarely enforced, they could potentially be in places as long as they’re on the books.

“Getting them off the books, making clear that they are unconstitutional — which all the courts that have looked at this have said those ordinances, similar ordinances, are unconstitutional — is the right way to go to prevent needless litigation and protect the constitutional rights of Vermonters,” Diaz said.

Reached for comment on the ACLU’s letter, Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd said his town’s ordinance came about in 2014 due to what some saw as aggressive panhandling downtown.

"People were being accosted on the street while shopping and brought complaints to the stores that they were shopping at, which in turn brought the complaints to the selectboard. So it seemed that there was a need to deal with this particular type of panhandling,” Hurd said.

Asked if there's some middle ground between addressing what's considered aggressive panhandling and an outright ban, Diaz said he thinks "it's clear that no one wants to see people on the street having to beg for help and change and charity. ... But what is also clear from the case law is that these ordinances are banning speech."

In its letters to towns, the ACLU is asking for a response by Sept. 30. Diaz said several towns have said they plan to put the issue on upcoming selectboard and city council agendas.

Disclosure: American Civil Liberties Union is a VPR underwriter.