Judge strikes down Worcester’s anti-panhandling laws

A recent Supreme Court ruling paved the way for the rejection of Worcester’s ordinances.

Robert Thayer, a homeless man in Worcester, was at the center of the free speech case.
Robert Thayer, a homeless man in Worcester, was at the center of the free speech case. –Yvonne Chan

A federal judge struck down Worcester’s ordinances that targeted “aggressive’’ panhandling, calling them an unconstitutional restriction of free speech, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette reports.

The ordinances, enacted in January 2013, made “aggressive’’ panhandling or soliciting illegal. The rule also created buffer zones around public areas where panhandling was off limits, and made it illegal to stand on any traffic island or median unless crossing the street.

The ACLU of Massachusetts sued on behalf of two homeless people in Worcester. The U.S. District Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals initially upheld the main thrust of the laws.

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However, the ruling in a recent Supreme Court case Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona undermined the Worcester ordinances. In that case, Gilbert officials had adopted a sign ordinance that had different restrictions for signs that dealt with religious, political, and ideological content. The Supreme Court ruled to overturn that law, saying any rule that restricted speech based on its content had to be narrowly tailored and serve a clear government interest.

In light of that decision, the Supreme Court vacated the earlier rulings on the Worcester ordinances and sent it back down to U.S. District Court in June. Lawyers for the ACLU argued that, using Reed’s logic, Worcester’s anti-panhandling laws restricted homeless persons’ right to free speech and were too broadly written.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Hillman agreed with the ACLU in a ruling on Monday, striking down the anti-panhandling laws.

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