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Anti-begging ordinances limit everyone’s Constitutional rights

RE: “ACLU pushes Brattleboro on panhandling ordinance” [Column, Sep. 19]:

Thank you for your column on the constitutional right to panhandling, an important issue. However, the discussion leaves out aspects of the issue that, to my knowledge, are always left out in such conversations.

An ordinance against begging violates not only the right to free speech of the beggar but also that of the potential giver. Giving charity to a poor person is also a form of speech. The fact that other channels exist for the giver to support the poor in general does not negate the right of the giver to encounter a poor person in public, face to face, for the purpose of giving charity to someone truly in need.

And for the rare individual who might stop and talk to the beggar, as one human being to another, offering a gift of conversation that can at times be greater than money or food, is not the speech that flows between them worthy of constitutional protection?

Anti-begging ordinances also limit the free expression of religion, insofar as a person might consider it a religious obligation to give charity to a poor person requesting it on the street.

Even for a non-religious person, the moral imperative to give would be limited in its expression, and in the absence of a religious or moral motive, a spontaneous feeling of compassion, or a natural impulse of generosity would be curtailed in the public space.

The coming together of a poor person in need and a charitable person who wants to give could also be considered an assembly of two, as worthy of First Amendment protection as a large public assembly of people gathered for any political purpose.

Freedom of the press is also at stake, as journalists and citizens have the right to see the face of poverty where it exists and report on it, without having it completely hidden from view.

Finally, in some cases, asking for help in public could be intended as a petition for redress of a societal grievance, if not to the government directly, at least to the citizens who elect government and are ultimately responsible for its actions.

For the desperately poor, the right to panhandle may be a matter of survival; for the rest of us, it may be just a matter of being deprived of most of our First Amendment rights.

Eric Weitzner
Marlboro

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Originally published in The Commons issue #480 (Wednesday, October 10, 2018). This story appeared on page D2.

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