The Cedar Rapids City Council’s decision to banish panhandlers from Cedar Rapids is appalling. At the ordinance’s first reading the city attorney, when asked to comment, first explained their focus on “how to do this legally.” Curious. The ordinance is supposedly to assure traffic and pedestrian safety. How often is safety illegal?
The attorney then noted that courts recognize a free speech right to panhandle. Ah! So the trick isn’t achieving safety; the trick is to seem to do that, but in such a way as to get rid of panhandlers despite their inconvenient rights. Council member Scott Olson soon chimed in on how panhandling is “not the image we want for our city.” Translation: how can we legally make those scruffy folk disappear?
Supposedly, people can still panhandle on all but seven corners, as long as there are sidewalks. The catch: they can go to jail for stepping off the sidewalk when you or I want to hand them a few bucks. Charming. We see then the need for specifying sidewalks in this cleverly constructed ordinance.
Any decent lawyer would need only the transcript from the ordinance’s first reading to show the council’s intent is to get away with ignoring speech rights by using smoke and mirrors. Remember how the courts used President Donald Trump’s tweets to show the travel ban unconstitutionally targeted a specific religious group, despite claims to the contrary?
Listen, council: even the scruffiest people have rights, rights far more dear to us all than your precious “image” for the city. Shame!
Charlotte Joy Martin