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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
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No Flutes Allowed Downtown in Colo. Springs

DENVER (CN) - Colorado Springs unconstitutionally barred nonprofits and musicians from collecting donations in a 12-block area in the heart of downtown, eight plaintiffs claim in Federal Court.

The City Council amended its Municipal Code on Nov. 27, prohibiting "solicitation" of any kind in the downtown area that hosts "the highest concentration of foot traffic on public property in Colorado Springs," according to the complaint.

The complaint, filed the day the amendment was passed, claims that city officials violate the rights of harmless musicians, theater groups, nonprofits and the needy while trying to crack down on "menacing panhandlers."

"In Colorado Springs, city officials report that some panhandlers have been intimidating and harassing pedestrians. In an effort to purge these menacing panhandlers from downtown, the city has adopted an ill-advised ordinance that effects a breathtakingly broad suppression of First Amendment rights in a large twelve-city-block 'Downtown No-Solicitation Zone.' Instead of focusing narrowly on threatening or coercive behaviors that invade the rights of others, Colorado Springs has banned any and all forms of 'solicitation,'" the complaint states.

"The expansive definition of 'solicitation' in the new ordinance has unjustifiably banished a substantial amount of peaceful, non-intrusive, and constitutionally protected expression. Nonprofit organizations, like plaintiffs Greenpeace and Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, are forbidden to ask passersby for donations. Plaintiff James Binder, a street musician, violates the ordinance by playing his flute while his open hat silently solicits donations. The ordinance forbids plaintiff Star Bar Players, a theater group, from setting up a signboard on the sidewalk that solicits pedestrians to buy tickets.

"The ordinance forbids a person to sit quietly with a sign requesting donations. It forbids the Salvation Army to deploy its familiar bell-ringers in Santa costumes."

The Salvation Army is not a plaintiff in the case. It appears to have cut its own deal with the city.

The complaint continues: "Nonprofits cannot distribute literature that includes information on how to send a donation. Organizers of demonstrations and rallies in Acacia Park cannot ask supporters for a donation.

"The new ordinance unjustifiably purports to transform each plaintiff's peaceful, nonintrusive, nonthreatening and constitutionally-protected communications into crimes.

"Plaintiffs ask this court for emergency injunctive relief to preserve their right, and the right of others, to peacefully and respectfully engage in expressive and communicative activity in the public areas of downtown Colorado Springs."

City Attorney Chris Melcher said in a statement: "The motivation for the ordinance is to help small business owners, retail merchants, tourists and families in the downtown area. The community has requested help with solicitation and panhandling in the economically sensitive downtown area for several years, especially as the problem has worsened. Solicitation and panhandling have had a significant negative impact on business and community activity downtown. The ordinance will help the merchants and residents build a thriving downtown area, which is so important for the health and success of our entire community."

The city said it reached a compromise with Salvation Army bell ringers who typically work within the "no-solicitation zone."

"The Salvation Army bell ringer will be permitted to remain in the downtown zoned area on private property," the city said on its website. "The Mining Exchange Wyndham Grand Hotel has already offered the Salvation Army a place for a bell ringer on its property."

Plaintiffs are the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, Star Bar Players, Greenpeace, The Denver Voice, James Binder, Ronald Marshall, Laurel Mosley and Roger Butts. They seek an injunction barring Colorado Springs from enforcing the ordinance.

They are represented by Mark Silverstein with the American Civil Liberties Union in Denver.

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