Government

ACLU of Iowa targets panhandling ordinances

Group argues bans 'criminalize poverty'

Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, speaks at a 2016 news conference in Des Moines. The ACLU on Tuesday demanded three Iowa cities repeal their panhandling ordinances, saying the measures are unconstitutional violations of free speech. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)
Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, speaks at a 2016 news conference in Des Moines. The ACLU on Tuesday demanded three Iowa cities repeal their panhandling ordinances, saying the measures are unconstitutional violations of free speech. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

The ACLU of Iowa is demanding that three Iowa cities repeal their panhandling ordinances, saying the measures are unconstitutional violations of free speech.

The organization said Tuesday it sent letters to the cities of Des Moines, Grimes and Council Bluffs objecting to their ordinances.

Other cities with panhandling ordinances did not received letters, but ACLU officials said the absence of a complaint doesn’t mean a city’s ordinance necessarily passes constitutional muster.

“These cities identified today represent only an initial review of some of Iowa’s largest cities,” said Rita Bettis Austen, the legal director for ACLU of Iowa.

The ACLU’s action is part of a coordinated campaign targeting 240 ordinances in 12 states.

Critics of panhandling bans say they not only violate free speech but criminalize poverty.

“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which is part of the campaign. “Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities.”

Bettis Austen added, “We encourage all Iowa cities to take a close look at their ordinances to make sure they don’t have bans or permit requirements on panhandling or solicitation.”

The ACLU said that since a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, more than two dozen panhandling ordinances have been found to be unconstitutional.

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It’s not clear what will happen if the three cities that did receive letters from the ACLU of Iowa don’t comply with the demand that they repeal their ordinances.

An ACLU spokesperson, Veronica Lorson Fowler, said litigation is a tool at its disposal but that the organization does not discuss its legal strategy.

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