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Tampa panhandling ban in downtown and Ybor City ruled unconstitutional

TAMPA — A Tampa law that banned panhandlers from begging for money downtown and in Ybor City is an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment, according to a new ruling from a federal judge.

This means Tampa is blocked from enforcing the ordinance, which was passed in 2013.

It doesn't mean that anything goes on the streets of Tampa. A separate ban on aggressive panhandling — such as acting in a threatening way, continuing to demand money after someone says no or blocking someone's path — remains in effect.

City Attorney Julia Mandell said Monday that her staff is analyzing the ruling that U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday signed Friday and has not decided whether to appeal.

Homeless Helping Homeless, the charity that sued the city over its ordinance, welcomed the ruling, but does not plan to resume soliciting donations in downtown and Ybor City immediately.

"We're glad that we were vindicated," Homeless Helping Homeless president Adolphus Parker said, but "it's not something to really gloat about."

Parker said the organization is working to create a fundraising strategy that does not rely on soliciting donations in the areas affected by the lawsuit, but if it can't do that, it may have no choice.

The nonprofit group sued the city in May 2015 over two ordinances that it said threatened to force it out of business.

One, passed in 2011, outlawed begging on city streets every day but Sunday while allowing newspaper vendors to work the curb seven days a week.

The second, passed in 2013, banned panhandling in downtown and Ybor City, as well as near banks, ATMs, sidewalk cafes and bus or trolley stops. It was aimed at behaviors that might make people feel vulnerable or unable to walk away from someone asking for money. It did not apply to solicitations that merely involve holding a sign.

Together, according to Homeless Helping Homeless' lawsuit, the laws restricted speech based on its content and made exceptions for some kinds of speech but not others.

"They think they have just as much a right to be out there engaging in protected speech as someone soliciting for signatures on a petition," said Brian T. Burgess, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., office of the Goodwin Procter law firm, which has represented Homeless Helping Homeless for free, but now may seek to have City Hall cover its legal fees.

Founded by Parker in 2009, Homeless Helping Homeless raised $26,000 by soliciting in downtown and Ybor City in 2013. That amounted to about one-eighth of the group's annual cash donations, Parker said.

The nonprofit feeds about 3,000 people a month, has 24 shelter beds in three facilities and provides 16 different services to the homeless.

In response to the lawsuit, the City Council repealed the ban on soliciting in the right of way as well as the exemption allowing newspaper vendors to work the streets seven days a week. (Even with the repeal, officials said Tampa remained subject to a Hillsborough County ordinance that bans standing on or within 4 feet of a public road to advertise, ask for money or distribute materials to motorists.)

Tampa officials thought they had a better chance of defending the ordinance focused on downtown and Ybor City.

Still, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in June 2015, "It's a hard case to defend when you've carved out certain forms of speech and excluded others."

And that — the fact that the ordinance banned one kind of communication because of its content — was its downfall.

Merryday wrote in his order that a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case pitting a tiny church against a town in Arizona left him little choice in the Tampa case.

"In other words," he wrote, "an opinion that resolves a dispute about parishioners temporarily planting some small signs directing people to a church service is written in such sweeping terms that the opinion appears to govern a dispute about an ordinance that regulates face-to-face demands for money from casual passers-by."

If not for that Supreme Court ruling in Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, Merryday said in his opinion, "I would uphold the city's ordinance."

Merryday called the Tampa law "a constructive and demonstrably benign legislative attempt to manage fairly and humanely a tangible and persistent problem in a manner narrowly and artfully tailored to fit the compelling facts in the affected community."

Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or Follow @Danielson_Times