The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union claimed Wednesday that the town of Hudson routinely violates the free-speech rights of panhandlers when police officers forbid them from asking for handouts.
The NHCLU made the claims in a federal action filed in U.S. District Court in Concord. It was filed on behalf of a homeless man — Jeffery Pendleton — whom police ticketed in November 2013.
At the time, police charged Pendleton with violating a state law that forbids people from selling material on public property. He was holding a sign that read “Homeless and Struggling. Anything helps. God bless.”
“Unfortunately, the message from the town to the poor and homeless is loud and clear,” said NHCLU staff attorney Gilles Bissonnette. “Peaceful panhandling is unwelcome, and the town believes that all panhandlers should just go back over the bridge spanning the Merrimack River to the City of Nashua.”
Town officials would not comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.
Town Administrator Steve Malizia said the town attorney, Manchester lawyer Jay Hodes, received a copy of the federal action Wednesday.
“At this point, I really can’t say anything about it,” Malizia said.
Selectman vice chairman Ben Nadeau said, “I have no comment until I see what it says.” According to the suit, Nadeau publicly complained that panhandling was a scheme and a growing problem in the town of 23,000. The suit said Nadeau called police four times to make specific complaints about panhandlers.
The lawsuit lists 18 specific times when Hudson police approached panhandlers. Police either told panhandlers they were breaking state law or they needed a license to ask people for money, the suit said.
Most of the times, the people promised police they would leave. But Pendleton was issued a citation after giving several warnings to stop panhandling.
Meanwhile, the town allows members of the Hudson Fire Department to approach people to solicit donations for muscular dystrophy, the suit said. And the suit includes photos of protestors who use public property. One protestor opposed illegal immigration; others called for the rehiring of fired Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.
According to the suit, courts have long held that panhandlers have a free-speech right to ask people for money.
In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled in a case brought by Schaumburg, Ill., and rulings have followed involving Cambridge, Mass., New York, Chicago and communities in Michigan, Utah and New Hampshire.
The suit said Pendleton is 24 and was raised by a single mother in Arkansas. He moved to New Hampshire in 2009 with his wife and worked low-wage jobs at McDonald’s and National Tire and Battery.
But he broke up with his wife last year, and his life went downhill, the suit said. He sleeps outside and is not on government assistance, the suit said. The lawsuit said he uses a sign to ask for money, does not block traffic nor touch cars.
The NHCLU asks for a jury trial, money damages for the violation of Pendleton’s rights and a declaration that Hudson’s practices are unconstitutional.
“We can understand how difficult and at times uncomfortable it can be to face poverty on our streets,” Bissonnette said. “But we must also recognize that asking for assistance in a public space should never be a crime.”