So your Cedar Rapids City Council is all but certain to approve strict new limits on panhandling this evening (Tuesday), wrapped in the more pleasant packaging of “pedestrian safety.”
The city is all set to shoo panhandlers from certain busy intersections, clear the medians of moochers and prosecute anyone who walks into a roadway to receive a buck or two from a motorist’s outstretched hand.
Backers, who have tried for years to crack down on panhandling, now insist this isn’t really about panhandling, it’s about safety. They know courts repeatedly have ruled begging for bucks is protected free speech, so city officials insist this is a narrowly tailored effort aimed at keeping pedestrians safe, not at restricting free expression. People can still sit at many intersections with signs asking for help, they just can’t walk out and accept any.
It’s savvy salesmanship. But the truth is, most government efforts curtailing civil liberties are sold as narrowly tailored public safety measures. It’s become standard, pedestrian, even. And, as usual, “narrow” is actually pretty broad, and the safety arguments are oversold.
In reality, I think this ordinance mainly is about making us feel better. People begging for money are a discomforting presence. They make us angry, sad or guilty, perhaps a combination. We look at them. They look at us. We don’t like what we see. There really ought to be a law. And are they truly needy?
Council member Scott Olson, who has worked for years to craft such a law, talked about Cedar Rapids’ “image” as he argued for the ordinance. Having panhandlers sitting at offramps and intersections doesn’t reflect well on this All-America city.
Personally, panhandling doesn’t raise my ire. Sure, I don’t recommend it as a career path. Nor would I recommend becoming a lawyer who shields polluters, an investment banker who thinks up new ways to crash the global economy or a member of Congress seeking an artful way to vaporize health insurance for millions of people, to name a few. Under the category “stuff people do that harms other people,” panhandling would be far, far down the list.
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Politicians begging for bucks in ballrooms and other glitzy venues from fat cats in pricey suits and gowns have done much more harm to the Republic than any disheveled guy with a cardboard sign and a rickety lawn chair.
But political begging is perfectly legal. Protected, even. Money is speech, as we learned from the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Citizens United ruling, permitting corporations and unions to spend piles of scratch on political activities. So if the city of Cedar Rapids is going to make it illegal for a panhandler to approach my outstretched hand, filled with crumpled free speech, they’re going to have to come up with a better excuse than “safety.”
Disagree? Take it up with Justice Kennedy.
The ordinance is simply unnecessary. We already have laws addressing harassment, assault, blocking traffic and other stuff that may actually pose safety risks. This is a city, and even All-America cities have panhandling. Package it any way you want, but that’s the reality.
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