State Civil Liberties Union threatens suit over panhandling law in Rochester
In a letter sent last month to the city attorney, NHCLU staff attornry Gilles Bissonnette said the ordinance is unconstitutional because it “proscribes a wide range of peaceful conduct” in the entire downtown business district. That abridges the right to free speech, he argued.
Last week, the city council met in non-public session with city attorney Danford Wensley to discuss the letter. City manager Dan Fitzpatrick said he thought it would be “more appropriate” to discuss it privately “under attorney-client privilege.”
Police Chief Mike Allen said while the winter weather keeps most people inside, the crackdown on “aggressive” panhandling has been working since it went into effect in July. While he did not participate in the council’s conversation, Allen said police provided the NHCLU with log entries and reports about panhandling dating back to three years before the ordinance went into effect. He said police also provided a second set of reports since it took effect.
Bissonnette said he has been in touch with the city attorney since Tuesday’s meeting. “And we continue to have cooperative discussions about what the next steps may be with respect to the ordinance,” he said.
Bissonnette said one problem with the ordinance is that it targets a particular form of peaceful speech in public areas: solicitations for the purpose of “immediately obtaining money or any other object of value.”
There has to be a really good reason to restrict such speech and it can’t just be that someone is bothering someone else, Bissonnette said. “When you’re trying to carve out certain types of peaceful speech as being prohibited, while allowing other forms of peaceful speech to be lawful, that is going to create grave constitutional concerns, and that’s really what we’re dealing with here,” he said.
Staff reporter Shawne K. Wickham contributed to this report.