New Orleans Suburb Cannot Require Panhandlers to Obtain Permits

Slidell, Louisiana, is a city of about 30,000 people about 35 miles from downtown New Orleans. In the last two years, they received 70 complaints related to panhandling, but police were only able to identify the individuals complained of for 14 of those 70 complaints.

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A panhandler’s sign in Slidell, Louisiana this year. (Robert Rhoden, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune Archive)

In response, the city enacted an ordinance meant to help identify the panhandlers. The ordinance required prospective panhandlers to complete a two-part application with identifying information. Applications could be denied only if the applicant had been convicted of certain crimes or if the applicant lied on the panhandling application. The ordinance further required approved panhandlers to display their permits on their person when panhandling.

The ACLU challenged the law, arguing that it violated the First Amendment. A federal judge agreed and ruled against the city. The court first held that the First Amendment protects panhandling, which the court called “an individual’s right to ask for charity.” The court next held that the ordinance was not content-neutral because it applied only to speakers of particular messages: requests for money. The court held that the ordinance was not “narrowly tailored” to further a “compelling” government interest because the city failed to prove how identifying all panhandlers was necessary for public safety. The court also held that the ordinance was overly broad on its face because it prohibited too much protected speech. “Slidell cannot take a sledgehammer to a problem that can and should be solved with a scalpel,” the court said.

The city has stated that it will not appeal the ruling.

(In a similar case in 2015, the Seventh Circuit held that an anti-panhandling ordinance in Springfield, Illinois, violated the First Amendment.)

Case: Blitch v. City of Slidell, No. 16-CV-17596 (June 22, 2017 E.D. La.) (opinion here)

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