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Court stops Colorado Springs "no-solicitation zone" because of free speech concerns

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Colorado Springs is trying to clean up its downtown by banning panhandling and soliciting, but there's one problem with that plan: The ordinance would violate the First Amendment -- at least according to the American Civil Liberties Union. And in the first major ruling on that issue, a federal district court seems to agree. Yesterday, it ordered the city not to move forward with enforcement, which was supposed to begin today.

Last month, the Latest Word reported that the ACLU of Colorado was bringing a lawsuit against the City of Colorado Springs for passing an ordinance that would ban solicitation. The ACLU, which filed the suit the same day that the city council gave the green light to the proposal, argues that the law is written in such a broad way that it would prohibit a wide range of constitutionally protected speech.

That includes nonprofit groups requesting donations, the Salvation Army ringing bells to seek contributions, street musicians playing with a hat sitting next to them for donations and a homeless person with a sign asking for charity. These concerns are represented by the ACLU's clients in this case -- four individuals and four organizations that cover a wide range of free-speech activities that would be banned under the law, the ACLU has said in its filings.

Meanwhile, city officials in Colorado Springs argue that there is a precedent for this kind of "no-solicitation" policy in municipalities across the country. They also point out that it would only apply to a twelve-block area in downtown that they say has become overrun with disruptive and aggressive behaviors.

Chris Melcher, City Attorney for Colorado Springs told us last month that he has done an exhaustive review and believes the ordinance does not violate the Constitution.

In the first ruling yesterday, however, Federal District Court Judge Marsha Krieger issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Colorado Springs from going forward with enforcement. That decision was delivered in an oral ruling, and the transcript is not yet available.

"We are glad that the judge agreed with us," says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, "that this ordinance unjustifiably suppresses the constitutionally protected speech of street musicians, nonprofit organizations and homeless people who might sit quietly with a sign asking for assistance."

He adds, "This...no-solicitation zone would unjustifiably prevent...[people] from exercising their First Amendment rights to communicate with the public."

Continue reading for more information.

Silverstein has said that there are already laws in place that prohibit aggressive or threatening behavior, but Colorado Springs officials argue that the law is important for public safety and to protect the economic vitality of the downtown area.

Melcher sent out this statement yesterday in response to the decision:

We are disappointed in the Court's ruling but respect the process. We will carefully review the written ruling when it is issued, likely next week. Our office will consult with City Council and the Mayor, brief them on the ruling and obtain their guidance on future actions in this matter. We continue to believe that the ordinance is constitutional and an appropriate effort by the City to protect our downtown merchants and residents, our visitors, families, and our community. This ordinance was narrowly drawn, carefully crafted, and thoughtfully considered and adopted by our elected leaders. The City did everything possible to create an appropriate tool to protect and support our downtown. We will continue to work with merchants and residents to help the revitalization of our downtown community.

In a press release, Colorado Springs officials note that the court, in its ruling yesterday, acknowledged that the city was trying to protect public health, safety and welfare and that the ordinance was part of an effort to promote a "valid public interest."

What this injunction does is ban the city from beginning enforcement until the trial and a final ruling in the case, which will go forward next year. Colorado Springs says that the court engaged in a complex constitutional scrutiny of the ordinance and did find several factors held in favor of the city -- but ultimately granted the injunction the ACLU requested.

Earlier this month, the ACLU celebrated a delay in the implementation of the ordinance, though the city said it had always planned on beginning enforcement on December 19. Some supporters in Colorado Springs had said they wanted to get the policy in place in time for the holidays, but it looks like those impacted will be able to continue their various solicitation activities, at least until another ruling says otherwise.

Silverstein says that this first ruling is a good sign that the law is on the ACLU's side.

"The court...found that it was likely that we would prevail on the merits," he says.

Here's the ACLU's original complaint: ACLU Colorado Springs Complaint

And another recent court filing by the ACLU -- a response to the city's call for a "continuance" of the emergency hearing that the ACLU originally requested. Resp to Mtn for Cont

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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