Proposal 'Mean Spirited'? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Proposal 'Mean Spirited'?

Panhandlers could be locked up under a proposed city ordinance.

Panhandlers could be locked up under a proposed city ordinance.

Apparently, the Supreme Court's recent landmark decisions didn't make people smarter about what's constitutional and what isn't.

After having difficulty getting a quorum at Thursday's meeting of the Jackson City Council's Intergovernmental Committee, members passed an ordinance aimed at limiting panhandling downtown onto the full council for consideration.

Ward 1 Councilman Quentin Whitwell amended the current ordinance, which carries a penalty of 30 days of community service, to impose a $500 fine and 30-day jail sentence on the second violation, the Clarion-Ledger reported.

Whitwell said he raised the issue to bring attention to "the epidemic" of panhandling that he says city leaders have ignored for years. He said he's received numerous phone calls, sometimes in the middle of the night, from constituents who say they were accosted downtown.

"This is something that has come before me from multiple angles -- residents, business leaders, property owners. What they say is that Jackson is becoming known as panhandling friendly city," Whitwell told the Jackson Free Press this afternoon.

Bear Atwood, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said the ACLU is keeping a close eye on the proposal, which "raises serious constitutional issues."

Courts across the country, Atwood said, have ruled in the past that panhandling is tantamount to constitutionally protected speech.

"This is a person speaking, and just because we don't like their speech, doesn't mean that we can ban it all together," Atwood said.

Furthermore, Atwood argues that the proposed ordinance increases the chance that low-income people will come in contact with the police and, by assessing criminal penalties, puts "people at risk of losing their liberty."

She adds that imposing a "huge fine" on poor people who are engaging in constitutionally protected speech "is just mean-spirited."

Whitwell rejects the characterization of his proposal as mean-spirited and doesn't believe it violates the First Amendment.

"I'm a lawyer. I know what free speech is," Whitwell said. "This has to do with the protection and the safety of the citizens of Jackson."

Rex Baker, executive director of Gateway Rescue Mission, said that although panhandling is sometimes problematic downtown, a misperception exists among people that all panhandlers are homeless and all homeless people panhandle.

"I think we jump to some conclusions," Baker said.

Comments

goldeneagle97 6 years, 3 months ago

How about locking up real criminals, like murderers and child molesters?

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donnaladd 6 years, 3 months ago

OK, if people are calling Whitwell in the middle of the night about being "accosted," why aren't they calling the police. I assume that means assaulted, which is already illegal. Why would he want to slap an extra criminal penalty on people for violating the law just because they're homeless?

And if "accosted" means asking someone for money, and not something already illegal, then that is clearly constitutional free speech.

Whitwell is an attorney, as he said; I'm sure he can understand the difference. (Even though I think he spends more time lobbying--like for payday lenders--than dealing with constitutional cases, so maybe he's rusty on how it all works.)

Seriously, people, we want to put poor people in jail for begging. What kind of city, and nation, would they make us?

If existing laws aren't being enforced, go after that. But for the love of God, literally, don't start passing laws against being poor -- especially if you support practices (like payday lending) that help people stay that way.

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KarlaBeeInLove 6 years, 3 months ago

I live downtown. I walk around and ride my bicycle alone in the evenings, and I have yet to feel unsafe or have any incidents with anyone. When I see a homeless person, we talk. It's not a big deal. Our society has an unwarranted fear of anything they don't understand, and there is still a huge race fear in the South. It's silly. We're all just humans doing what we can to get thru this life. So those who have been "accosted" are likely blowing it WAY out of proportion, and Whitwell is running with it. Closed minds, fear, ignorance, and feelings of superiority; this is the real problem in Jackson, MS.

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donnaladd 6 years, 3 months ago

It seems to be a Ward 1 tradition to obsess over homeless people asking for money. That doesn't mean we shouldn't enforce laws when they break them, but putting people in jail for begging is a harsh solution looking for a problem. And unconstitutional.

Seriously, corporations have a First Amendment right to buy as many candidates as they want, but a homeless (or poor) person can't walk up to someone and ask them for money?

The issue is poverty—you know, the kind that Whitwell's payday lending clients help propagate.

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