Case Study
October 2, 2017

Fighting for What's Right

When several cities in the United States passed ordinances banning the homeless from asking passersby for charity, dozens of Goodwin attorneys teamed with the ACLU to challenge the bans on First Amendment grounds.


After the financial and opioid crises led to a seeming increase in homeless and begging, a large number of communities enacted measures aimed at outlawing so-called “aggressive” panhandling – in some cases, defined so broadly as to include quietly holding a sign asking for help near a bus stop or “place of public gathering.” Some broadly banned panhandling in downtown business districts, whatever the circumstances, and others banned any kind of speech in areas favored by the homeless, such as median strips and traffic islands.

Our approach

Goodwin attorneys worked with ACLU affiliates across the country to challenge these ordinances. Since early 2013, dozens of Goodwin attorneys and paralegals have spent more than 9,200 hours asserting the rights of homeless individuals in First Amendment challenges to anti-panhandling ordinances. Goodwin’s approach was to focus on the laws’ overbreadth – their banning speech under circumstances that posed no real safety concern. At a deposition in a challenge to one city’s law, the mayor conceded that the city’s law department had erred by failing to include an exemption for passively soliciting charity with a handheld sign. A federal judge in that same lawsuit was incredulous that the city’s law would ban even a Girl Scout from “aggressively” selling cookies in public places.

The Outcome

In a series of federal trial court and appellate decisions, and at the U.S. Supreme Court, Goodwin’s attorneys repeatedly convinced often skeptical judges that the First Amendment protects the right of panhandlers to use public spaces to ask passersby for spare change. Ultimately, the tally of victories included favorable decisions in the First and Fourth Circuits, a trial victory in Maine, two summary judgments in Massachusetts, a judgment on the pleadings in Florida, and a voluntarily-repealed law in Montana. “The attorneys at Goodwin secured a significant victory for freedom of expression, and for all people who use public spaces to communicate with their fellow citizens,” said Kevin Martin, co-chair of Goodwin’s Appellate Litigation Practice.