Are we willing to violate someone’s free speech because we are uncomfortable? It’s not hate speech or threatening speech, but it makes us uncomfortable. Many times, it’s not even speech, but a simple handmade sign on a piece of cardboard, yet we are still uncomfortable. One area city council has already voted to do just that and others are talking about it.
During a recent meeting of the Cuba City Council, Alderman Sam Black brought up what he feels is a panhandling problem in town, pointing out that Sullivan recently passed an ordinance banning the practice and that he now fears more panhandlers will be coming to Cuba.
Black proposed Cuba pass a similar ordinance (other area towns including St. James and Steelville have discussed doing so in the past), despite the fact that City Attorney Lance Thurman said that any such ordinance would not stand up in court if it were challenged, pointing out that Springfield, Mo., had lost a $250,000 judgement in such a case.
“It is protected free speech under the Constitution,” Thurman told the council.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Reed v. Town of Gilbert (Ariz.), numerous panhandling laws have been thrown out across the country. The American Civil Liberties Union has been at the forefront in several of those cases, arguing that begging for money, either by speech or with a sign, is protected free speech, and the courts have agreed.
But, there is more than just a person’s right to panhandle at play here. Why are we all so uncomfortable with people begging for money in public. Is it really a problem? What, exactly, is the problem with panhandling? Is it just that we don’t like it?
We all have seen it, typically at places like an interstate off-ramp or a busy intersection. Many of us give panhandlers money; most of us don’t. But, why does it make us all so uncomfortable?
Isn’t helping someone who is seeking help the right thing to do? Isn’t that what we’ve been taught since we were children? If someone asks for my coat, shouldn’t I offer him my shirt?
We should be taking a deeper look at this “problem.” Why are people panhandling in the first place? What other problems do they have? Are they homeless? Can they be employed? How else can we help?
It’s not easy to address a societal “problem” like panhandling head-on. It’s much easier to simply make it go away, to push it on down the interstate, to make it illegal. That, however, is not solving the real problems the less fortunate in our society have.
At the end of a recent high-profile murder case in Dallas, where an off-duty police officer shot and killed an unarmed man in his own apartment that she mistook for her own, the brother of the deceased asked the judge for a simple favor—could he hug the woman who killed his brother and forgive her. Most people couldn’t even begin to understand the forgiveness offered that day, but it was the right thing to do.
Banning panhandlers isn’t the right thing to do, both legally and as a society. Our elected leaders should be looking at ways to help those in need, whether they are panhandlers, homeless, addicted, poorly educated, mentally ill, or have some other serious problems in their lives, not legislate them out of sight because they make us uncomfortable.
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