Update: Fort Collins, ACLU Settle Over Controversial Panhandling Ordinance

Outside Fort Collins' rescue mission. Additional photos and more below.
Outside Fort Collins' rescue mission. Additional photos and more below.

Update: The ACLU of Colorado and Fort Collins have reached a settlement over the city's controversial panhandling ordinance, detailed in our previous coverage below.

An ACLU release puts it simply: "The City of Fort Collins has agreed to stop arresting, ticketing, citing, or otherwise interfering with individuals who engage in passive solicitation as part of a settlement agreement."

"Passive solicitation" means simply displaying a sign requesting donations, as opposed to more actively soliciting individuals.

The ordinance didn't last long after the ACLU voiced its objections early last month. On February 27, the city repealed the provisions that the ACLU had challenged, and now, the organization notes that Fort Collins "has also agreed to the entry of a federal court order forbidding police and city officials from interfering with the free speech rights of persons who panhandle by merely displaying a sign that invites charity. The City also agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees and costs, and to provide the ACLU with 45 days advance notice of any future proposals to reinstate or revise the repealed provisions of the ordinance."

The Fort Collins Coloradoan notes that the payments will include $82,500 for legal fees and $100 apiece each of the homeless plaintiffs named in the ACLU complaint, on view at the bottom of this post. The paper also highlights a statement from Fort Collins City Attorney Carrie Daggett: "The City is pleased to be able to settle this case in a prudent manner at this time. The City will continue to address panhandling-related issues as needed in the future in order to best serve all of Fort Collins' residents and businesses."

ACLU cooperating attorney Hugh Gottschalk's remarks are equally conciliatory. “We commend Fort Collins for agreeing to a resolution that protects free speech rights and avoids lengthy and costly litigation," he's quoted as saying. "The City handled this matter in a prompt, professional, and responsible manner.”

This isn't the first time the ACLU has won a victory over panhandling ordinances it sees as going too far. The organization has earned victories in Colorado Springs, Boulder and Durango, and recently sent a letter to Telluride warning officials that a proposed ordinance there could also be problematic. Read it below, followed by our previous coverage.

Update, 11:09 a.m. March 4: A short time ago, we received a note from John Krieger, spokesman for the ACLU of Colorado, about the latest development in regard to Fort Collins's controversial panhandling ordinance, detailed in our earlier coverage on view below. Krieger writes:

Yesterday, we filed this response to Fort Collins’ notice that it repealed parts of its panhandling ordinance. In it, we make two main arguments as to why the court should grant a hearing and injunctive relief to our clients. The first is that the City made clear indications that the repeal was a litigation tactic and that it may very well re-enact those provisions verbatim at a future date. The second is that the repeal does nothing to refute evidence that we have presented that dozens of passive solicitors, who were not violating the law or engaging in aggressive panhandling, are being targeted and issued citations. As we say in the filing “For impoverished, sign-holding solicitors like Plaintiffs Abby Landow, Susan Wymer, and Jeffrey Alan, the mere repeal of the challenged provisions makes no difference: their solicitation did not violate the ordinance before repeal, and their solicitations do not violate the ordinance after repeal.” We are asking the Court to permanently stop the City from arresting, issuing citations or issuing “move on” orders to people who engage in non-aggressive solicitation, as is their First Amendment right.   

Continue for our previous coverage.

Update, 8:16 a.m. March 2: Earlier this month, we told you about a lawsuit filed against the Town of Fort Collins over its panhandling ordinance by the Colorado branch of the American Civil Liberties Union; see our previous coverage below.

The ACLU, representing several members of the local homeless community and Greenpeace, argued that some of the regs went so far that they infringed on the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights.

Now, Fort Collins has blinked, suspending the rules to which the organization had objected.

As a result, a court hearing scheduled for today has been canceled — but the ACLU is not yet ready to declare that the situation has been resolved.

Downtown Fort Collins.
Downtown Fort Collins.

As Fox31 points out, the portions of the ordinance that have been suspended pertain in part to bans against panhandling in certain locations, including near ATMs, bus stops and restaurant patios.

However, the suspension of these rules is only temporary at this point — something stressed by ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein in a statement about the development:

“The City of Fort Collins has taken a positive and welcome first step by repealing the provisions of its panhandling ordinance that have been challenged by the ACLU and our clients, who engage in nonthreatening, nonaggressive requests for charity that are fully protected by the First Amendment. We hope that today’s repeal means that they and all other peaceful solicitors will no longer be targeted by Fort Collins police. Fort Collins can still rely on the provisions of the ordinance that we did not challenge to address truly aggressive solicitation without stifling free speech rights.

“If Fort Collins would agree to make today’s repeal permanent, we could be well on our way to resolving this litigation and putting it behind us. Fort Collins, however, has described today’s repeal as a temporary measure and has signaled that the repealed provisions may well be reenacted. The repealed provisions violate the First Amendment, and their repeal should be permanent, not temporary.”

Look below to see the aforementioned Fox31 report, followed by our original report, which includes the ACLU complaint.

Original post, 11:50 a.m. February 12: Greenpeace is known for going after whalers, toxic-waste dumpers and other entities that it sees as hindering its goal to "ensure the ability of the Earth to nurture life in all its diversity." But its latest target isn't a greedy polluter or ecology-despoiler. It's the City of Fort Collins.

The organization has joined four homeless people in a lawsuit filed under the auspices of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado; it's on view below. These parties all see the community's panhandling ordinance as impinging on their right to free speech, as ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein explains.

"Sometimes cities will justify an ordinance like this by saying they're targeting aggressive panhandling," Silverstein says. "But with this ordinance, Fort Collins police are enforcing it against people who are quietly and passively inviting charity by holding up a sign that communicates a need for assistance. It's not aggressive, it's not threatening. It's not intrusive. So when police are targeting folks who are just passively inviting contributions like that, they're suppressing their First Amendment rights and suppressing speech that poses no danger to the public's safety."

An example of active solicitation.
An example of active solicitation.

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The suit doesn't call for the elimination of every provision in the Fort Collins ordinance — but there are several that Silverstein sees as problematic. For instance, Silverstein notes, "the ordinance prohibits panhandling in the evening hours. Of course, Fort Collins has an active night life on well-lighted streets, and some of our clients have said they'd like to ask people who are leaving the bars for contributions. And as long as they're approaching people in a polite and non-threatening manner, their communications are protected by the First Amendment. If this law protected only aggressive panhandling, there's no way it would apply against our clients."

How does the ordinance apply to Greenpeace? For one thing, Silverstein points out a prohibition against "stopping or accosting another and then soliciting that person for a gift of money or other things of value. And Greenpeace's canvassers do approach pedestrians and initiate a conversation about Greenpeace's mission — and if the conversation continues, Greenpeace solicits membership. And if Greenpeace does that within 100 feet of an ATM or a bus stop" — another prohibition in the regulations — "they're violating the ordinance as it's written.

The ACLU's Mark Silverstein.EXPAND
The ACLU's Mark Silverstein.

"From what I understand," Silverstein adds, "there are some well-trafficked corners in Fort Collins that are within 100 feet of a bus stop or an ATM." Hence, Greenpeace is prohibited by local rule from canvassing in such prime locations.

The other people represented by the complaint are homeless, and Silverstein says they've been negatively impacted by the ordinance in problematic ways.

"Fort Collins is imposing fines and some people have done jail time for panhandling," he confirms. "One of our clients received a citation, and a friend went with her to court and explained to the prosecutor that the ordinance applies only to people who approach, stop or accost another and then solicit — and this particular client was just sitting and holding a sign. In that case, the prosecutors agreed to dismiss the fine, but he warned our client that if she got another ticket, it wouldn't be dismissed. Another of our clients has been warned to stop doing the same thing on a number of occasions. And Greenpeace, which has been canvassing in Fort Collins for years with no problems has been told that their canvassing activities now violate the ordinance, too."

A popular part of Fort Collins.
A popular part of Fort Collins.

The Fort Collins ordinance isn't the only one that's come in for ACLU scrutiny of late. Silverstein confirms that "we certainly seem to be getting calls about panhandling ordinances or other ordinances that seem to target the poor and the homeless in downtown areas." The group took on a Colorado Springs panhandling ordinance "a couple of years ago," by Silverstein's estimate, "and last fall, Durango agreed to stop enforcing their ordinance after getting a letter from the ACLU. And we're in the middle of a case in Grand Junction."

The suit's signatories may have dislike the Fort Collins panhandling ordinance for different reasons, but they have something in common, in Silverstein's view. "We think Fort Collins violated their constitutional rights," he says, adding, "it's wrong to suppress peaceful, nonthreatening communication."

Whether it concerns some spare change or a Greenpeace membership.

Here's the complete lawsuit.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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