DENVER – The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a class action lawsuit this morning challenging an anti-panhandling ordinance that is being widely enforced by the City of 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.
According to the ACLU complaint, Fort Collins police have issued “dozens and dozens” of citations, vigorously enforcing an unconstitutional 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 ACLU does not object to a narrowly and carefully tailored ordinance that targets truly threatening, coercive or menacing behavior that actually interferes with the rights of others, but Fort Collins has gone too far,” said ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein. “The Fort Collins law and its enforcement have unjustifiably turned polite and harmless pleas for help into a crime.”
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.
"The First Amendment applies to everyone, regardless of social status or economic circumstances,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Hugh Gottschalk of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP. “It is clear that Fort Collins police and city officials are violating the First Amendment and engaging in a broad campaign to stop people who are impoverished and homeless from asking for charity on the sidewalks, streets, and other public places in the city.”
The ACLU’s clients include four named individuals who are homeless and representative of a class of people who want to engage in peaceful requests for charity that Fort Collins currently forbids.
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.
Nancy York, a 76-year-old resident of Fort Collins, is also a named plaintiff. York objects to being classified as “at risk” simply because she is over 60 years of age. She asserts that she is fully capable of deciding for herself whether or not to make a charitable donation to a person or a charity.
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.”
Today’s lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Denver, requests a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the ordinance.