August 9, 2011
The city of Charlottesville is asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging an ordinance that restricts panhandling at the Downtown Mall.
Five self-identified homeless men represented by the American Civil Liberties Union claim the ordinance unconstitutionally restricts freedom of expression in a public venue.
In a motion to dismiss filed in federal court, the city says the plaintiffs lack standing to sue because they haven't been arrested for violating the ordinance. Jeffrey Fogel, a lawyer for the men, questioned Tuesday whether the city really wants people to break the law in order to file a legal challenge.
Fogel has called the ordinance unconstitutional and an assault on the homeless population's dignity and rights as American citizens.
"Everybody should have a right on the Downtown Mall simply to hold up a sign," argued Fogel, who believes the ordinance restricts the rights of homeless people to ask for assistance. "If people stand around an outdoor cafe with sings that say 'don't help the homeless', that's perfectly fine. However, if a homeless person gets up in that same location with a same sized sign that says 'please help me', they're criminals."
The ordinance prohibits soliciting people in outdoor cafes or within 50 feet of the two streets that cross the mall (2nd Street SE and 4th Street NE), as well as people conducting business at any vendor table or cart.
Businesses along the Downtown Mall have long fought panhandling. The Downtown Business Association says the ordinance has been a big success. Business owners believe it's doing exactly what it was designed to do, keep customers on the Mall safe and hassle-free.
Click here to read the City's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.