RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - A ban on begging the popular Virginia district of Charlottesville could violate the First Amendment rights of panhandlers, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Five Charlottesville panhandlers who describe themselves as "impecunious and reliant to a certain extent on begging" claimed that the city law restricted their right to solicit money and criminalized their speech, but a federal judge dismissed their case for failing to raise a "cognizable First Amendment violation."
The law prohibits beggars from soliciting money in a subsection of the city's popular downtown mall district, an area filled with restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. Charlottesville maintains that the plaintiffs lack standing to sue because they have not demonstrated a wish to beg in the area.
A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit revived the case on Feb. 21, finding that city could have enacted the law for the purpose of outlawing speech.
The reversal notes that the Supreme Court defined solicitation of "charitable contributions" as protected speech in 1988 with the decision Riley v. National Federation of the Blind of N.C. Several sister circuits then extended that precedent to begging.
"We agree that begging is communicative activity within the protection of the First Amendment," Judge Allyson Duncan wrote for the panel.
Here, the plaintiffs stated that they rely on begging in the area to an extent to support themselves.
"Because appellants seek to engage in protected speech in a traditional public forum, the government's power to regulate that speech is limited, though not foreclosed," Duncan wrote. "The government may impose reasonable content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions that are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest and leave open ample alternative channels of communication."
It had been erroneous for the lower court to find the ban content neutral, according to the ruling, which notes that it specifically prohibits soliciting donations of things of value.
"It is not implausible that the city singled out requests for immediate donations in an attempt to target the particular nuisance of beggars' speech but allow other types of solicitation to continue," Duncan wrote. "We find appellants' allegation a reasonable one, and must accept it as true at this state."
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