On Feb. 10, 2015, The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a class action lawsuit challenging an anti-panhandling ordinance that is being widely enforced by Fort Collins, in violation of the free speech rights of people who are impoverished and homeless, as well as street performers and non-profit canvassers.
Fort Collins police have issued “dozens and dozens” of citations, vigorously enforcing a law that criminalizes peaceful, non-threatening speech and expression, including silent requests for charity from solicitors who simply display a sign asking for help.
The challenged ordinance makes it illegal to solicit charity in any of 11 locations or circumstances, including from people over the age of 60 and people with disabilities, whom the ordinance defines as “at risk.” The ordinance prohibits solicitation in the evening or within 100 feet of a bus stop or other locations. According to the ACLU complaint, a review of citations reveals that police are not only broadly applying those parameters, but are also in many cases enforcing the law as if it were a complete ban on any panhandling anywhere in the city.
Our clients include four individuals who are homeless. They represent a class of people who want to engage in peaceful requests for charity in Fort Collins.
The suit was also brought on behalf of Greenpeace, Inc., a non-profit organization whose street canvassers were recently warned by police that the ordinance prohibits their requests for contributions to the organization.
Our clients also include Nancy York, a 76-year-old resident of Fort Collins. Because she is over 60, York is classified as “at risk” by the law and therefore cannot be approached by people or organizations requesting charity. She objects to the classification and believes that she is fully capable of deciding for herself whether or not to make a donation to a person or an organization.
The ACLU of Colorado has a long history of opposing laws that target the homeless and limit speech protected by the First Amendment, including a successful challenge in late 2012 of a sweeping ordinance that designated 12 blocks of Colorado Springs as a “no-solicitation” zone. The ordinance was repealed after a federal judge’s preliminary ruling found that it was “likely unconstitutional.”
The lawsuit against Fort Collins was filed in federal district court in Denver. It requests a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the ordinance. Within a few weeks, Fort Collins repealed the challenged portions of the ordinance and signed a settlement agreement resolving the ACLU's claims. The court entered a permanent injunction prohibiting Fort Collins from enacting any future ordinance that outlawed passively standing or sitting with a sign asking for donations.
- "ACLU files class action lawsuit challenging Fort Collins panhanding law," ACLU News Release, February 10, 2015
- Profiles of the ACLU's Fort Collins Clients
- ACLU Statement on repeal of Fort Collins panhandling ordinance, February 27, 2015
- "ACLU announces settlement with Fort Collins over panhandling law," ACLU News Release, March 30, 2015
- "Update: Fort Collins, ACLU Settle Over Controversial Panhandling Ordinance," Westword, March 31, 2015
- "Twenty years of restricted speech: Panhandling in Fort Collins," Rocky Mountain Collegian, February 9, 2022