Sunday, August 23, 2009

signs, signs, everywhere signs

the lead item in today's behind closed doors column is about how mayor greg "end of country-club politics" ballard has received free memberships to all the city's snootiest country clubs. it's recommended reading, but i don't have much to add.

instead, i'd like to focus on the final item in the column:

A panhandling ordinance that's been hotly debated in city hall has gotten some help from its Facebook friends.

Councilman Mike McQuillen, a Republican who sponsored an ordinance to ban people from holding signs within 50 feet of traffic lights or stop signs, has started a Facebook group called "Indy, Stop the Panhandling!" As of Friday, the group had drawn about 280 members in support of the ordinance, which goes back to the council's public safety committee Monday for public input.

"These are people I've never heard of," McQuillen said of the members. "I thought a few of my friends would join."

now, those 280 fans seemingly include everyone in mcquillen's family, as well as a number of people who are active in local republican politics (ryan vaughn, theresa lubbers, lincoln plowman, mike jezierski, murray clark, ernie shearer, bart mcatee... and those are just some of the names i recognize off the top of my head), but let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that most of them are just normal facebookers.

The Facebook page also serves as a forum for discussion. People have posted comments offering support ("Go, Michael, go!"), while others have questioned the need for another law to address the problem.

now this part isn't so impressive. the group's wall currently has a whopping 15 comments. five of them are from mcquillen himself. another is from someone in florida, who states, "I wish someone would start this n key west". and two of them suggest we don't need another panhandling law. so calling the page "a forum for discussion" might be technically accurate, but let's not get carried away.

the star goes on to note that "[s]ome council members oppose the ordinance because they feel it's classist or inhibits free speech", and yes, the ordinance is both of those things. but arguably most important, the proposal's classism makes it unconstitutional.

the entire point of the proposal is to restrict free speech rights of a specific class of people—panhandlers. but first amendment law says you can't do that! prior restraints must be content-neutral and apply to everyone. so to pass constitutional muster, a law that makes it illegal to "hold or display any sign or placard intended to solicit food, work, or other assistance" would need to apply not only to panhandlers, but to the guy standing in front of little caesar's hawking hot-n-ready pizza, the person in the cow suit in front of chick-fil-a, the people advertising liquidation sales at whatever big-box store is closing down this month, the black muslims on 38th street selling incense, the folks collecting money for muscular dystrophy, and even the scantily-clad high-schoolers holding a car wash for their church.

mcquillen and other ordinance-supporters claim that the proposal is about public safety, but let's be honest. this proposal, like past panhandling proposals, is about the privileged feeling uncomfortable around those people. unfortunately for them, the first amendment says you can't pass a prior restraint that only applies to those people. are we really so frightened of panhandlers that we're willing to interfere with community car washes and hot-n-ready pizzas?

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