The street solicitation ban that goes to the Tampa City Council on Thursday is a flawed approach for cleaning up the city's image. Council members have tied themselves in knots over the past year trying to balance the public clamor to rid panhandling from the roadways with the rights that newspapers, charities and other groups have to solicit sales and donations in public rights of way. The ordinance is marginally better than an all-out ban, but it still raises constitutional questions about fair treatment and free assembly.
The proposal bans street-level sales six days a week, except for newspapers, leaving Sunday as the only day that panhandlers and charities may solicit donations along the roadways. Council members wanted to accommodate not only the major dailies that sell Sunday newspapers along the roadsides, but also the twice-weekly Florida Sentinel Bulletin, a paper serving Tampa's black community that is published Tuesdays and Fridays.
Carving out an exception for the newspapers raises a fairness issue. Charities and others have the same free speech protections. Yet under the city's ordinance, only the newspapers could solicit business seven days a week. The city may be tempting a lawsuit by adopting a solicitation policy that is not content-neutral. And by its very nature, the ordinance puts the city in the business of deciding which publications are bona fide newspapers. This is far afield for a panhandling law.
The St. Petersburg Times has a financial interest in this issue. But firefighters and other groups also have a stake. And they stand to lose the most. The city says its concern is public safety, both for the vendors near the roads and for motorists who do not want to be approached at a stoplight. But there are laws already on the books that ban aggressive panhandling and blocking the road. This measure merely gives the police greater leeway to put a stop to panhandling altogether. It is more about cleaning up Tampa's image than public safety.
The city's legal staff made a good-faith effort to craft a law that a majority on the council could support. But council members are all over the map on a strategy for cracking down on street-level begging. Mayor Bob Buckhorn, to his credit, acknowledges that the city needs to address larger issues of homelessness, poverty and mental health care. That's where council members should focus their time and energy. The goal should be giving the down-and-out other options, not merely shooing them deeper into the neighborhoods and out of sight on major streets.