DENVER – The City of Fort Collins has agreed to stop arresting, ticketing, citing, or otherwise interfering with individuals who engage in passive solicitation as part of a settlement agreement announced jointly by the ACLU of Colorado and Fort Collins today.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in early February alleging that both the Fort Collins panhandling ordinance and its enforcement by local police violated the First Amendment. According to the suit, the ordinance was overly broad and prohibited peaceful, polite and nonthreatening requests for charity. In addition, the ACLU presented evidence that the overwhelming majority of the City’s enforcement had been directed at individuals who only passively asked for charity by displaying a sign, an activity that was not actually prohibited by the challenged ordinance.
“The First Amendment protects the rights of all people, regardless of economic circumstances or social status, to make peaceful, non-threatening requests for charity,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein. “We were prepared to prove that the Fort Collins ordinance and the city’s campaign of enforcement, which went beyond the written words of the law, were unconstitutional.”
On Feb. 27, the Fort Collins City Council repealed all of the challenged provisions of the ordinance. In today’s settlement, the City has also agreed to the entry of a federal court order forbidding police and city officials from interfering with the free speech rights of persons who panhandle by merely displaying a sign that invites charity. The City also agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees and costs, and to provide the ACLU with 45 days advance notice of any future proposals to reinstate or revise the repealed provisions of the ordinance.
“We commend Fort Collins for agreeing to a resolution that protects free speech rights and avoids lengthy and costly litigation,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Hugh Gottschalk of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP. “The City handled this matter in a prompt, professional, and responsible manner.”
The ACLU of Colorado is also currently litigating a challenge to Grand Junction’s panhandling ordinance. In recent years, the ACLU of Colorado has successfully challenged the criminalization of peaceful, non-threatening solicitation in Colorado Springs, Boulder, and Durango. Last week, the organization sent a letter to Telluride warning that a recently proposed panhandling ordinance, if passed, would violate the First Amendment.
Along with its legal efforts, the ACLU of Colorado is also supporting HB 1264, known as the “Homeless Bill of Rights,” in the Colorado legislature. The bill, which is scheduled to be heard by the House State Affairs Committee on April 15th, establishes basic rights for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, including, but not limited to, the right to move freely and to rest in public spaces.