Worcester sued over panhandling law

The city of Worcester is being sued over its new aggressive panhandling law. Credit: Google Images
The city of Worcester is being sued over its new aggressive panhandling law. Credit: Google Images

A school committee member in Worcester joined two homeless residents in suing the city Monday, charging that an ordinance intended to block aggressive panhandling violated their right to free speech.

Plaintiffs Robert Thayer and Sharon Brownson are both homeless. They, along with school committee member Tracy Novick, charged that the ordinances, adopted in January, would also hurt political speech by banning political candidates from campaigning on traffic medians and rotaries, and banning anyone from soliciting in public from a half-hour before sunset to a half-hour after sunrise.

“The city and the police department’s enforcement of the ordinances is focused on ‘panhandling’ by the homeless, and not on other speech or conduct that may take place on roadways, rotaries or traffic medians and islands,” the suit contends.

It noted that no arrests were made at a recent protest against the ordinance held on traffic medians, but that “several homeless individuals” have since been arrested for violating the rule.

The lawsuit contends the ordinance violates both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal treatment under the law.

Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty had no immediate comment on the suit, said his chief of staff, Michael Lanava.

Attorney Matthew Segal of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is representing the plaintiffs, said the Worcester rules are overly broad in their definition of “aggressive panhandling.”

“It can be defined in different ways and sometimes, as is the case in Worcester, it is defined to prohibit actions that are not aggressive,” Segal said. “The ordinance prohibits begging within a half hour of darkness. Someone holding up a sign asking for help with a half hour of daylight left in the day is doing something that is completely protected by the First Amendment and is not aggressive.”

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