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Bossier City begging bills doomed unless altered

Practically no one likes having their day disrupted by panhandlers, and Bossier City wishes to join Shreveport in regulating the practice largely into nonexistence. The problem is the two proposed ordinances and Shreveport’s on the books likely are unconstitutional.

Councilman Thomas Harvey last week introduced an ordinance to ban all panhandling by roadways and another banning aggressive or threatening personal solicitation in and around businesses. Only Councilman Jeff Darby objected to the measures, citing a desire to assist individuals he claimed down on their luck.

Shreveport has had an ordinance since 2004 essentially covering both concerns. Bossier City officials thought that increased enforcement of this had caused a “surge” of panhandlers across the river, necessitating the new laws that move on to consideration of final passage next month.

Two years ago, such laws made eminent sense. But in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court in Reed v. Town of Gilbert – which actually hardly addressed panhandling – declared that “[g]overnment regulation of speech is content-based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed,” meaning that governments must apply the highest standard to restrict it.

Since then, courts around the country have found in every instance that outright panhandling bans on public property violate the First Amendment, considering requests for donations as protected speech that government cannot circumscribe. This includes not just pleas in public spaces but also adjacent to public roadways as well, opining that municipalities with this approach fail to tailor laws narrowly to promote public safety.

In short, Shreveport’s ordinance would fall if challenged, and Bossier City would futilely pass legislation doomed to fail (with the exception of the part allowing owners of private property to prohibit begging). If Bossier City wishes to address the issue in a way that passes constitutional muster, in south Louisiana there exists a promising model.

Slidell used to have similar laws but abandoned these under legal challenge. Instead, it turned to licensing. The current iteration of its regulation would have those wishing to beg receive a conditional license no strings attached for 72 hours, within which time span they would have to apply for an annual permit free of charge that could include a background check, permitting begging anywhere reasonably safe for both beggars and the solicited public.

By shaping regulations in this fashion, Slidell avoids having its ordinance enact content-based rules and instead makes that conduct-based. Even after Reed, lower courts have upheld a number of ordinances that took this approach.

If Bossier City heads in this direction, it still may not come without a fight. Frequently, chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union have led the charge against these laws in a smash-and-grab strategy to fuel its coffers. In these kinds of cases it can squeeze reimbursement from the losing party, which has cost taxpayers millions of dollars that it uses to keep itself and its agenda in business. The state ACLU chapter continually has filed suit against Slidell each time it modified its law to obviate objections, and the organization plans to keep that up.

Regardless, clearly Bossier City policy-makers must pull back on Harvey’s ordinances as currently written. Otherwise, they will waste citizens’ time and perhaps their tax dollars fighting an unwinnable battle.

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