City avoids free-speech concerns in effort to fix panhandling problem 

Safety Words

Last week, the Charleston City Council gave a first reading to a new ordinance that will skillfully put an end to the scourge of panhandling in the Holy City. It passed unanimously.

Instead of outlawing the act of begging itself, which is arguably a First Amendment right, the new ordinance criminalizes the act of passing anything to or from a car while the vehicle is on the road. The fine is $1,092.

With drivers risking that much money just to hand a few coins to a panhandler on the side of the street, the incentive to make a donation all but vanishes, and once donations dry up, the roadside panhandlers will vanish as well.

The City of Charleston deserves to be praised for reversing course and closing the Pandora's box it had opened last year by changing the panhandling ordinance in the first place. Not everyone sees it this way. Based on comments made by some bleeding hearts on social media and in response to editorials written about the issue, those who approve of this new ordinance have been accused of showing little sympathy toward the less fortunate. This criticism is irrational.

The city's obligation to make sure that roadways and sidewalks are safe for drivers and pedestrians should trump whatever justification there might be in allowing beggars, the homeless, or conartists (depending on your point of view) from using intersections as their preferred centers for income production. If an ordinance does not infringe on a panhandler's First Amendment rights, and the new ordinance most certainly does not, then the overall goal of driver and passenger safety outweighs whatever collective interest is served by allowing individuals to solicit at intersections.

Also, the new ordinance does not discriminate. One type of speech is not being targeted or promoted over another. As such, the law will outlaw the exchange of items from occupants and anyone outside of the car, including those who are soliciting donations for charity (see, the Lowcountry's annual firefighter charity drives).

As a general rule, city ordinances are designed to promote safety and livability in a growing community. They should also benefit the greatest number of citizens possible. Last year's ordinance which opened the panhandling floodgates benefited a select few, specifically those who camp out at busy intersections, set up tents under bridges and overpasses, and attempt to coax money from generous drivers. While no one was reportedly injured or killed by drivers and panhandlers exchanging money, outlawing the practice is still a good idea.

Every city has a right to determine what types of activities it wants to restrict or limit. Adult-oriented businesses are often zoned for certain industrial areas only, and there are rules regarding the placement of political signs along roadways. Once this new ordinance goes into effect, the collective atmosphere and experience of driving through Charleston's busiest intersections will be palpably different. The improvement of the driving experience and the perception of these busy thoroughfares, though secondary to driver and pedestrian safety, is a laudable goal.

The takeaway from this year-and-a-half-long panhandling experiment is that sometimes small legal changes can have dramatic and unforeseen consequences. Fortunately, in the event that a lax ordinance is passed and a mistake is made, there often exists an opportunity to correct that error.

The City of Charleston was very wise to focus the new ordinance on the actions of drivers, passengers, and all roadside charity seekers and not just panhandlers. For that reason, and because council was responsive to citizen complaints, the intersections of Charleston will soon be safe and welcoming to drivers and pedestrians alike.

Dwayne Green is a licensed attorney practicing in Charleston. He is a former assistant attorney for the City of Charleston, and graduated from Princeton University with a degree in politics and the University of Iowa College of Law.

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