Tampa's City Council made the right move this week toward repealing a ban on roadside solicitations. Though the move will hurt sales for the Tampa Bay Times and other newspapers, the measure was clearly unconstitutional.
The council adopted the ban in 2011 in a half-baked attempt to strike a balance between free speech and the growing public clamor over panhandling along the roadways. The ordinance outlawed street solicitations, yet allowed newspaper sales along the road every day. Sunday was open to solicitations by newspapers, charities and panhandlers alike.
The ban created two classes of protected speech by putting the city in the business of deciding what was a bona fide newspaper and by giving special rights to publishers that weren't enjoyed by the general public. Homeless advocates sued, and after city attorneys expressed concerns, the council moved Thursday to repeal the ban. A final vote is scheduled July 16. After that, a countywide ordinance that bans all street sales would apply.
There was no need for the city to carve out a special exception for newspapers; indeed, there was no need for the city to pile on new restrictions at all. The city has plenty of laws on the books to enforce safety in the roadways. If the real problem is aggressive panhandling, the city has ordinances, too, to protect people from being harassed in public places. This was a costly lesson that is not yet over, and the city needs to think seriously this time about striking a better balance.