The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Pensacola Panhandling Ordinance

Lawsuit on behalf of local citizens and charity organization argues law set to go into effect tomorrow violates free speech and due process


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida has today filed a lawsuit challenging an ordinance passed last week by the Pensacola City Council which would prohibit individuals from asking for donations in much of downtown Pensacola. The lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida states that the anti-panhandling ordinance, set to go into effect on Thursday, May 18, violates the free speech and due process rights of those who would be impacted by the law.

"We repeatedly warned the city council that this ordinance was unconstitutional," stated Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. "The city council can't outlaw certain kinds of speech just because hearing it could make some people uncomfortable. Courts throughout the country, including in Florida, have been abundantly clear about the unconstitutionality of these laws. We had worked to avoid litigation, but when this cruel and unjust law was passed, we had to take action before it went into effect to protect the rights of the city's most vulnerable citizens, street performers, and charitable groups."

In an April 7 letter to the city council, the ACLU of Florida warned that similar anti-panhandling ordinances "in Florida and throughout the nation... have been consistently declared unconstitutional by the courts." The city council nevertheless approved the ordinance by a 4-3 vote on May 11.

The ACLU is representing two individuals - a diabetic former nurse who solicits donations in downtown, and a street performer who plays the guitar - as well as the local volunteer chapter of Food Not Bombs, a volunteer service organization which puts out a jar for donations in downtown. On their behalf, the ACLU is asking the court to not only find the anti-panhandling ordinance to be unconstitutional, but to issue an order preventing the law from being enforced before it goes into effect.

"A person doesn't lose their right to free speech or due process simply because they need help getting by, and not all problems that a city faces can be solved by law enforcement," stated ACLU of Florida northern regional director Sara Latshaw. "By treating needy members of the community or charity organizations like a nuisance, the city council fails to address the needs of its citizens. Rather than violate people's rights with a policy they knew has been repeatedly found unconstitutional, the city council should work to find viable solutions for the issue of poverty in our community."

The ACLU has successfully challenged similar panhandling laws in multiple states, and is currently involved in legal challenges to anti-panhandling laws in cities including Cleveland, Ohio and Belton, Missouri. The ACLU of Florida has also been involved in litigation across the state challenging policies which criminalize homelessness and violate the rights of homeless individuals.

A copy of the complaint filed today is available here:

A copy of the brief in support of the motions for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction are available here:

A copy of the April 7 letter to the city council is available here:

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 and is our nation's guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

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