The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Wednesday upheld the injunction of an Arkansas state law prohibiting panhandling, saying that it could be a violation of free speech. The anti-loitering law prohibits “begging in a manner that is harassing, causes alarm, or impedes traffic.”
The court enjoined Arkansas Code § 5-71-213; violations of the law can be punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $500.
The plaintiffs allege that they have had to change their behavior in fear of the new law. Any content-based restriction on speech needs to serve a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to that interest. The court ruled that this law restricting begging speech fails that test.
Asking for charity or gifts is protected First Amendment speech which can be regulated with good reason. In this case, the government’s compelling interest is to prevent begging that is harassing, causes alarm or impedes traffic.
A law is not narrowly tailored if it leaves some conduct which violates the established interests unregulated. Since there are types of solicitation other than begging which could be harassing, cause alarm or impede traffic that are equally dangerous and not covered by the statute, the law is not narrowly tailored and would violate the First Amendment.
The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which filed the case in 2017, stated, “Being poor is not a crime, and today’s ruling affirms that people have a constitutional right to ask for help.”