FRANKFORT, KY. — A panhandler cited for defying a city ordinance while holding a sign asking for money won his case before the Kentucky Supreme Court, which ruled his free speech rights were violated.
The court on Thursday released its unanimous opinion striking down the decade-old panhandling ordinance in Lexington. The local law prohibited begging along public streets and intersections in the state’s second-largest city.
The justices ruled that the ordinance singled out a particular type of speech for criminal prosecution — begging — while allowing other forms of speech.
Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., who wrote the opinion, said the “true beauty” of the First Amendment is it “treats both Cicero and the vagabond as equals.”
“Someone standing at a prominent Lexington intersection displaying a sign that reads ‘Jesus loves you,’ or one that says ‘Not my President’ has no fear of criminal liability under the ordinance,” Minton wrote. “But another person displaying a sign on public streets reading ‘Homeless please help’ may be convicted of a misdemeanor.”
He said there is “rarely a constitutionally valid reason for the government to filter the topics for public discourse.”
The court’s ruling came in the case of Dennis Champion, whom police cited in 2014 for holding a homemade sign asking for money at a busy Lexington intersection.
Lexington police issued 327 citations for violating the city’s panhandling ordinance in 2015, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. From January to Sept. 31, 2016, Lexington police issued 195 citations, it said, according to data provided by Lexington police.
In its ruling, the court returned Champion’s case to the local court and directed that the charge against him be dismissed.
Lexington officials had said the ordinance was aimed at promoting public safety and ensuring free flow of traffic.
The city also said it has a compelling interest in regulating interactions between pedestrians and motorists.
The Supreme Court said there are “content-neutral ways” the city could achieve the same goals without violating free speech rights.
“For instance, Lexington could prohibit all individuals from approaching stopped motorists — this more directly targets the behavior the city seeks to alleviate and does so without regard to why an individual steps into traffic,” Minton wrote.
Responding to the ruling, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said: “With people asking for help at our intersections, safety has always been our primary concern. We will carefully examine options and work on a strategy that puts safety first for everyone involved.”
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