Press Release December 02, 2013

Goodwin Procter and ACLU Battling Begging Bans

A team of Goodwin Procter attorneys is working with the American Civil Liberties Union to fight the spread of anti-panhandling ordinances around the United States – a fight that has attracted widespread media attention, including a recent piece in TIME magazine and extensive coverage in local media.

The ACLU and Goodwin have filed suit in Worcester, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine, contending those cities’ ordinances are unconstitutional abridgements of the First Amendment right to free speech. Goodwin also represents a previously pro se individual in his challenge to an anti-solicitation ordinance in Henrico, Virginia, and in conjunction with the ACLU is in discussions with Lowell, Massachusetts over an ordinance that city recently enacted.

Worcester has two panhandling ordinances. The first law bans begging by any means (including merely holding a sign) anywhere in the city under a wide variety of circumstances, such as a half hour before nightfall, near any mass transit stops, or near people in a line; the second makes it illegal to stand in a roadway or traffic island for any purpose (other than crossing the street). Plaintiffs in that case are a school committee member who (like many politicians) holds campaign signs on traffic islands, and two homeless individuals. A preliminary injunction motion filed at the beginning of the case in May 2013 was denied in October 2013. Goodwin appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which entered an order partially enjoining enforcement of the ordinances pending appeal and set oral argument for January 2014.

Portland’s law, like Worcester’s, bans being present on median strips in the city for any type of speech. Goodwin and the ACLU filed suit in September 2013 and, following expedited discovery, a one-day bench trial was held in the U.S. District Court for Maine on November 19. A decision is expected in January or February 2014. Plaintiffs in Portland are two political activists who traditionally have held signs on the city’s median strips, and one homeless woman who panhandles on medians.

Henrico’s ordinance prohibits being present on a median only for purposes of leafleting or soliciting. In October, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted the city’s motion for summary judgment against the then-pro se plaintiff, a homeless individual. We are now representing plaintiff on his appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Finally, citing a desire to promote tourism, the Lowell City Council voted in November 2013 to ban panhandling within that city’s downtown area, while still allowing commercial soliciting and requests for charity by organized groups. That ordinance is not yet the subject of legal action.

The cross-office Goodwin teams challenging these laws are led by Boston partner and Appellate Litigation co-chair Kevin Martin. The Worcester team also includes Yvonne Chan, Todd Marabella, and Kate MacLeman in the Boston office, and Brian Burgess from the Washington office. The Portland team includes Tim Bazzle from Boston and Brian Burgess. The Henrico team includes Appellate Litigation co-chair Willy Jay and Brian Burgess.