A no-panhandling ordinance will have to be very narrowly defined if it’s going to stand up in court, Colorado Springs City Attorney Chris Melcher told City Council Monday.
“Soliciting for money is a first-amendment protected speech,” Melcher said.
First amendment speech rights can be limited, but it has to be done very carefully, he explained to council. That’s the reason its taken months to come up with an ordinance that the city can pass.
In order for an ordinance to be defensible, it has to be content neutral, which would bar all types of solicitation from food sales to pollsters, he said. There also has to be ample alternative space for soliciting, the limited zone has to be narrowly tailored and it has to serve a significant government interest.
Councilors and constituents had asked in May for no-panhandling ordinances to be introduced downtown on the Westside of the city near the intersection of Colorado Avenue and 31st Street.
Melcher said an ordinance will have to be so narrowly defined that the city will not realistically be able to create ordinances for two separate areas simultaneously. He added that the soliciting on the Westside could be tackled with added enforcement of the existing ordinances against aggressive panhandling and panhandling on roadways.
“You’ve got to pick your one area,” Melcher said.
The narrowly defined proposed downtown no-solicitation zone would roughly include Boulder Street between Cascade Avenue and Tejon Street, expanding to Nevada Avenue at the Bijou Street down to Cucharras Street.
It would also exclude areas that are considered public forums, such as the library on Cascade Avenue, the Pioneer’s Museum, the court house and Acacia Park.
Councilor Bernie Herpin said he didn’t like that the park, particularly the Uncle Wilbur Fountain, would be excluded from the no-panhandling ordinance.
“You’re going to take all the panhandling in downtown and shove it at Acacia Park,” he said.
Families use the fountain in the park, and if the goal is to eliminate a factor that deters people from bringing their families downtown, Herpin said he didn’t understand why the city would exclude the park from the zone.
Melcher said parks are generally considered public forums and it’s hard to defend a law that limits free speech in a public forum.
“It’s just that much more difficult to defend,” he said.
Councilor Tim Leigh asked Melcher to look at the law again and see if there is a way to include the park in the zone.
“To not include Acacia in this, to me, we might as well forget the whole thing,” Leigh said. “I think you’ve missed the picture.”
The presentation was a preliminary discussion. Melcher and his staff will bring the ordinance back to city council for a first reading at the formal meeting Sept. 11.