The city of Dallas is facing a lawsuit over a recently-passed ordinance that bans people from walking or standing on medians to ask for money. WFAA reports the ordinance was passed in October 2022, by the Dallas City Council with a 14-1 vote and it bans people from asking for money in certain areas of the city. This ordinance also allows city marshals to give out citations to pedestrians who violate the first ordinance, and fines for panhandling in these situations could go up to $500.
The Texas Civil Rights Project has filed the lawsuit on behalf of four people experiencing homelessness, including two disabled combat veterans, claiming that the ordinance violates the First Amendment. WFAA says the city council passed the ordinance on the grounds of public safety, arguing that people shouldn't be allowed to stand on medians six feet wide or narrower as they might be hit by a car. However, the lawsuit argues that the ordinance criminalizes homelessness.
The First Amendment protects the act of panhandling as a form of speech and this ordinance targets it as a violation of this protection. “Recognizing that such a targeted attack would violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on content discrimination, the City manufactured an unjustified ‘public safety’ rationale for (the ordinance), and attempted to disguise the Ordinance’s real purpose by criminalizing a broad array of speech,” the lawsuit claims.
This lawsuit is not the only one that the city of Dallas is facing over this panhandling ordinance. Other groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) have also expressed their opposition to the ordinance, arguing that it criminalizes homelessness and is a violation of the First Amendment.
The Texas Civil Rights Project's lawsuit claims that the ordinance unfairly targets individuals experiencing homelessness who rely on panhandling as a means of survival while providing no real solutions to address homelessness itself. The lawsuit also argues that the ordinance violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, by treating individuals experiencing homelessness differently from other groups of individuals who ask for money in public spaces.
Critics of the ordinance have also highlighted that the fines imposed by it could create an additional burden for people experiencing homelessness, can lead them to be trapped in a cycle of debt and recidivism, and make it harder for them to access essential services, housing and employment.
It is worth noting that cities across the country have been facing similar lawsuits over panhandling ordinances and similar laws. WFAA reports that the courts have often ruled that such laws, while perhaps well-intentioned, are unconstitutional and discriminatory. Some cities, however, have responded by enacting alternative policies that address homelessness, such as providing more affordable housing, healthcare, and job opportunities.
At this point, is not clear when the court will rule on the case or what the outcome might be. It is likely that the court will carefully review the ordinances and the arguments put forward by the city and the plaintiffs, and determine whether the ordinances violate the First Amendment and other constitutional protections.
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