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Councilwoman Feels New Panhandling Law Could Be Challenged as Unconstitutional

Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky
Councilwoman Rushefsky during the Jan. 27 council meeting/Credit: Springfield City View

There has been some debate over the new panhandling bill passed by Springfield City Council on January 27th.  KSMU’s Shane Franklin spoke with two city officials to clarify the details.

Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky, who first started practicing law in Greene County in 1984, questioned the constitutionality of the recent panhandling bill passed by City Council. This after an amendment was added to strike the mention of passive panhandling, which she says would have been unconstitutional on its face.

Rushefsky says she still thinks the bill can be challenged for violating First Amendment freedoms.

“I don’t know how to say this any differently, but what’s good for business is not always what’s right, and in this case it’s not. I think this is one of those circumstances where what business wants and even what the public wants is not the issue. That’s not the answer because the right to free speech is protected for everyone,” said Rushefsky.

She says business will have to make some accommodation just as panhandlers will have to make accommodation under this ordinance, if it is found to be constitutional and enforced.

Under the approved ordinance, is it unlawful to panhandle within 20 feet of any business or residence entrance, outdoor café, or ATM. The ordinance also makes it unlawful to solicit funds in any way, including quietly holding a sign, in areas the city feels are safety concerns- 5 feet from any curb edge, sidewalk, intersection median, or highway off ramp.

Rushefsky says there has to be a balance between the rights of businesses and the rights of panhandlers.

“When it’s something like a First Amendment right, which is fundamental to everything we believe as a democracy, then the balance is going to favor heavily the individual right,” says Rushefsky.

Dan Wichmer is the Springfield city attorney, and advises City Council. Wichmer says he advised council that anytime you attempt to regulate First Amendment activity, you run the risk of being called out for violating the Constitution.

Wichmer noted that ticketing for panhandling is done on a complaint basis, and that the city doesn’t set out to ticket panhandlers.

“We never have and we never will. People, if they feel like someone is being aggressive, they need to let the police know. If somebody is blocking traffic, somebody needs to let the police know. If someone is on the sidewalk and impeding traffic, we already have ordinances that deal with that. A lot of this is just clarifying what you can do on the sidewalk anyway,” says Wichmer.

Wichmer says this is the main issue as he sees it. The bill is not clear on how to measure the distance from the sidewalk, and when combined with the 20 foot prohibition, he says a court may find this to be an unreasonable limitation of Constitutional freedom.

Rushefsky says while homeless people in Springfield do not have the resources to challenge this law, there are civic organizations, like the ACLU, whose job it is to protect the civil liberties of groups that are unable to protect themselves.

For KSMU News, I’m Shane Franklin.