Civil rights groups pressure Illinois towns to back off panhandlers

CARBONDALE (Illinois News Network)– Civil rights groups are going after more than a dozen cities in Illinois for violating the First Amendment rights of panhandlers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and other groups are pressuring cities from Rockford to Carbondale to scrap their laws against asking passersby for money in public areas.

“Our Constitution does not permit a lower standard of protection for speech simply because the speaker is someone in need of assistance,” said Rebecca Glenberg, senior staff counsel at the ACLU.

The group sent letters to Aurora, Carbondale, Champaign, Chicago, Cicero, Danville, Decatur, East St. Louis, Elgin, Joliet, Moline, Oak Park, Peoria, Rockford and Urbana.

Meghan Cole, executive director with Carbondale Main Street, said she understands the right to free speech, but said panhandlers can become aggressive and there’s no denying that it affects a local businesses.

“Although all citizens should be welcomed, it can have a very negative effect,” she said.

Glenberg said rules against aggressive panhandling exist in other ordinances and need not single out those unfortunate enough to need to ask.

“Local governments like to claim that these laws are necessary for public safety, but that is a red herring,” she said.

Many of the ordinances were made before the 2015 Supreme Court ruling Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which said that panhandling was protected under the First Amendment, the ACLU release said.

ACLU said a city of Philadelphia program, which created a day shelter in an unused transportation station in the city’s downtown, was an example of a creative solution to panhandling that doesn’t encroach on constitutional rights.