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Top state court strikes down Massachusetts’s anti-panhandling law

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: A homeless panhandler checks his bucket for money along Wall Street where much of the Financial District stands empty as the coronavirus keeps financial markets and businesses mostly closed on April 20, 2020 in New York City. New York City, which has been the hardest hit city in America from COVIT-19, is starting to see a slowdown in hospital visits and a lowering of the daily death rate from the virus. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) Spencer Platt / Getty Images

BOSTON (AP) — The highest court in Massachusetts on Tuesday struck down a state law making it illegal for people to ask for money for their own support on public roads.

A decision from the Supreme Judicial Court found that the law violated free speech rights because it prohibited people from requesting money for personal support on roadways but specifically allowed the sale of newspapers or event tickets.

The court concluded that asking motorists for personal donations “poses no greater threat to traffic safety than engaging in the same conduct for other” purposes that are permitted under the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts challenged the ordinance in a 2019 lawsuit accusing Fall River of aggressive enforcement. The group represented two homeless men who were accused of violating the law more than 40 times by Fall River police.

A request for comment from Fall River’s mayor’s office was not immediately returned.

The ACLU of Massachusetts urged law enforcement agencies across the state to take heed of the decision.

“This ruling is timely, as a growing number of Massachusetts residents may need to rely on support from the public to make ends meet in the face of our current economic downturn,” said Ruth Bourquin, senior and managing attorney of the group.

The civil rights group said similar “anti-panhandling” ordinances in Worcester and Lowell were ruled unconstitutional in recent years.

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