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Judge rejects St. Petersburg Times' effort to block street solicitation ban

TAMPA — A federal judge refused Thursday to block the city of St. Petersburg's new ban on street solicitation, clearing the way for officials to begin enforcing it this weekend.

Starting Sunday, panhandlers, charity fundraisers and street vendors on the city's major streets could face arrest if they don't leave after a warning, St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe said.

The City Council unanimously passed the ban June 3 in an effort to stem the surge in panhandling that has troubled neighborhood leaders.

But in prohibiting any transaction between pedestrians and motorists on the city's busiest streets, the ban also extends to those who sell newspapers and collect money for charities. Council members called the latter groups "collateral damage."

The Times Publishing Co., the corporate parent of the St. Petersburg Times, responded with a lawsuit. Attorneys claimed the ban violated the paper's constitutional right to free speech.

In court Thursday, the paper was unsuccessful in its bid for a temporary restraining order to delay enforcement of the ban until the legal challenge was resolved.

Times attorney George Rahdert argued that city officials claimed the ordinance was aimed at improving public safety to disguise its real intention: getting beggars off the streets.

"This is a panhandling ordinance, pure and simple," he said.

U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara said the motivation for the ban was irrelevant.

Rahdert noted that there had been only one accident involving a vendor for the paper since the Times instituted its street vending program in 1995. About 90 part-time workers sell about 7,000 newspapers in the city each Sunday. The paper's suit stated that the city offered no evidence of vendors obstructing traffic or creating an actual hazard.

Again, the judge was unmoved.

"Does that mean the city has to wait for someone to be killed or injured?" Lazzara asked.

Rahdert said the ban permits roadside political campaigning yet will prevent people from getting their newspapers.

"We would argue that this statute is not content-neutral, that it exempts the speech of the people who legislated it at the expense of the people who cover them," he said.

On this point, Assistant City Attorney Joseph Patner disagreed.

"We're not favoring or disfavoring one message over another," he said, noting that political candidates would not be allowed to interact with motorists.

And he said newspaper vendors can still operate on nearly 1,000 miles of roadway that are not regulated by the ordinance.

In rejecting the request for a restraining order, Lazzara did not rule on the merits of the newspaper's constitutional challenge.

But the judge said, "there's not a substantial likelihood that the St. Petersburg Times will prevail on this case."

Though disappointed by the decision, Times Editor and Vice President Neil Brown said the newspaper does not plan to appeal Lazzara's ruling. He said the paper will abide by the ordinance as it continues to evaluate its options.

"We still believe that the city's ordinance violates the First Amendment, and people should be able to get their newspaper the way they want,'' Brown said.

Wolfe said Thursday that violators of the ban would be warned, but they would be jailed if they didn't comply.

Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats didn't approve of that solution.

He doesn't want violators clogging his crowded jail. He said he will encourage law enforcement to issue a notice to appear before a judge rather than jail them for an ordinance violation.

"The taxpayers have to incur the expenses while these individuals are in jail," Coats said. "There needs to be an alternative solution that's a lot less expensive than taking the homeless to jail. This is a social issue that I think needs to be dealt with differently than relying on the county jail as a place to deposit these folks."

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said he doesn't expect to see a wave of new arrests.

Officers should cite or arrest only those who have already been warned and knowingly defy the new ordinance, he said.

"All we want is compliance with our laws and ordinances," he said. "Arresting somebody is going to be the absolute last resort."

Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Judge rejects St. Petersburg Times' effort to block street solicitation ban 06/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 10, 2010 9:34pm]
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