AUSTIN ANSWERED: Why isn’t panhandling illegal? It’s about free speech

Oct 11, 2017
  • By Anusha Lalani
  • American-Statesman Staff
Charles Robert Caple, also known as "Grease Monkey," panhandles for a cigarette on U.S. 183 in 2015.

In the latest installment of our “Austin Answered” series, a reader asks the American-Statesman, “Why isn’t there a law against panhandling?”

The answer could be understood better when you frame the question a different way: What’s the difference between a person standing on the side of the street asking for money and a group of high school students advertising a car wash to raise funds for their class?

Nothing, legal experts say. Both groups are considered to be panhandling but neither one is breaking the law, according to an Austin city ordinance.

“It’s legal because the First Amendment protects freedom of speech,” University of Texas law professor Lucas Powe said.

RELATED: Panhandler threatened to kill UT student, police say

People can stand on the side of the street and ask for money, with or without a sign, said Powe, who added that a typical sign he’s seen said, “Jesus Loves You.”

The city of Austin is trying to reduce the number of panhandlers through a recently passed City Council resolution that would provide temporary jobs to homeless people and panhandlers. The plans for the program will be reviewed at the beginning of next year.

Technically, panhandling can include a variety of solicitations, such as people holding up signs saying they have no job or home or people asking others to donate money to a specific cause.

However, limiting a person’s ability to panhandle would limit a person’s freedom of speech, UT law professor Lawrence Sager said.

“The very term ‘panhandling’ is asking people for something immediately,” Sager said. “To say that the one thing you can’t do on the street is ask for money now is to really single out a really particular form of speech on the street.”

Sager said various forms of speech can be done in the streets, such as waving to people or talking to each other in the streets — and panhandling is included.

“It would be quite difficult in some ways not to single out panhandling by content,” Sager said.

RELATED: Facebook photo of panhandler’s money sparks controversy

According to the city ordinance, panhandling is allowed unless it becomes an aggressive action, such as following pedestrians, asking for money from people at or near a bank or ATM, or making physical contact with another person. Other forms of aggressive panhandling include using obscene language or gestures toward a person while asking for money or continuing to ask someone for money after they have refused.

This type of panhandling can get law enforcement involved.

“Obviously if it’s reported to us, then we can issue (panhandlers) a citation, or depending on the circumstances, we might take them to jail just because they might have some warrants,” said Austin police Sgt. Matthew Wright.

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