Indiana Faces Free Speech Lawsuit Over Limits on Panhandling

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging a newly passed law that it claims unconstitutionally bans panhandling in any downtown area statewide.

The law, known as House Enrolled Act 1022, is set to take effect on July 1 and would prohibit panhandling within 50 feet of places such as businesses, public monuments, parking meters and restaurants.

The ACLU’s lawsuit, filed in Indianapolis federal court, contends that the restrictions on panhandling violate the First Amendment by effectively banning loitering with intent to  ask for money within the downtown area of any city, as the 50-foot restriction would apply to virtually all of that area.  

The 18-page class action names as defendants the superintendent of Indiana State Police, Indianapolis’ mayor and the Marion County prosecutor in their official capacities. The plaintiffs include the state ACLU chapter and three of its top staffers.

“This panhandling ban is an unconstitutional attack on free speech,” Ken Falk, legal director for the ACLU of Indiana, said in a statement. “Because of the broad definition of financial transaction, the expansion of the places near where panhandling is prohibited, and the increase of the distance restriction to 50 feet, HEA 1022 leaves virtually no sidewalks in downtown Indianapolis or any downtown area in any Indiana city where people can engage in this activity which courts have recognized is protected by the First Amendment.”

The law was authored by State Representative Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and faced little opposition before being passed by both chambers of the legislature and signed by Republican Governor Eric Holcomb last month.

It enforces the new anti-panhandling rules by classifying violations as a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500 and is punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

The ACLU argues the law is written in a way that could prevent its own members from asking for donations.

“Three of these persons, the executive director, director of advocacy and public policy, and director of philanthropy of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana will now, ironically, be banned from soliciting contributions and organization memberships from persons during the celebration of Constitution Day,” the complaint states, referring to a planned Sept. 17 event in Indianapolis’ Monument Circle.

Jane Henegar, executive director at the ACLU of Indiana and one of the plaintiffs in the case, said that while the new law could prohibit the civil rights group from taking donations, “we know what this law truly aims to do is even worse.”

 “It is sometimes difficult to confront the face of poverty.  But we must assist those who suffer the consequences of America’s income inequality and failed mental health system, not sweep them out of sight,” Henegar said.

The offices of Bosma and the Indiana attorney general did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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