Today, the Florida Justice Institute (FJI), in partnership with Fort Lauderdale lawyers Mara Shlackman and Frantz J. McLawrence, filed a lawsuit challenging a pair of the City of Fort Lauderdale’s anti-panhandling ordinances as an unconstitutional restriction of free speech. One ordinance prohibits requesting donations in all public parks, parking lots, and transportation centers; and within 15 feet of any sidewalk café, ATM, or entrance or exit to a commercial or governmental building. Another ordinance prohibits asking for donations or offering items for sale to people in cars along certain roads and prohibits this speech along all city roads if holding a sign. All of these actions are punishable by up to 60 days in jail. In the last two years alone, over one hundred people have been arrested or cited for violating these ordinances—nearly all of them homeless people requesting donations. The suit seeks an immediate declaration that the law violates the First Amendment.
The Plaintiffs are Mike Messina and Bernard McDonald, both of whom are life-long residents of Broward County who have been homeless at various points in their lives. They request donations from pedestrians and drivers to help with their survival, but they fear being arrested for doing so.
“These laws have been enforced almost exclusively against homeless people who were peacefully requesting donations,” said Ray Taseff, lead attorney with the Florida Justice Institute. “But this speech is protected by the First Amendment. The City cannot single out panhandling for differential treatment.”
One ordinance only applies to requesting donations; all other forms of speech are permitted. For example, the ordinance allows a church member to solicit support for a religious cause, a candidate for public office to ask for votes in an upcoming election, a political activist to advocate for a different climate change policy, or a tourist to ask for directions. Similarly, the second ordinance only applies to requesting donations or offering items for sale; no other forms of speech are restricted.
“These laws are used to criminalize poverty and homelessness,” said Mara Shlackman. “A criminal justice response to this issue is a cruel and counterproductive strategy. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, where putting people in jail just contributes to the spread of the disease, Fort Lauderdale should focus on more constructive solutions like affordable housing.”
This lawsuit is part of FJI’s effort to end the criminalization of poverty in the state of Florida. The attorneys have also filed a similar lawsuit against the City of Pompano Beach over a similar ordinance. In response, Pompano Beach repealed a portion of the ordinance and revised other against the revised ordinance.
This is not the first time that the City of Fort Lauderdale has been sued over the treatment of homeless people. In June 2017, ten homeless individuals sued the City after it seized and destroyed property from a homeless encampment in a downtown park. That case settled for roughly $82,000. In January 2015, the local activist group Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs—which regularly shared food with homeless people in a public park—sued the City over its onerous restrictions on food sharing, claiming the restrictions violated their First Amendment rights.
The current lawsuit also points out that, in August 2018, numerous advocacy organizations wrote to the City of Fort Lauderdale, notifying the City that its panhandling ordinances were unconstitutional under recent United States Supreme Court precedent, and urging the City to repeal them. The City did not respond to the letter.
The case is Messina v. City of Fort Lauderdale, Case No. 21-CV-60168 in the Southern District of Florida. For more information, contact Ray Taseff, firstname.lastname@example.org, 786-342-6919.