COSAC sues JAX over anti-panhandling law

By Steve Patterson | March 1, 2024
Florida Times-Union

A homelessness nonprofit is suing to stop enforcement of a Jacksonville law banning panhandling in intersections and major roadways, arguing it violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free-speech guarantees.

“The ordinance has effectively banned requesting donations and distributing literature throughout vast portions of city sidewalks and streets,” says a court filing by attorneys for the COSAC Foundation, a South Florida organization that raises money by distributing a newspaper called The Homeless Voice.

People had been soliciting for the foundation in Jacksonville since 2017 but “the ordinance has effectively banned their activities throughout the city,” says the lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court.

The City Council changed Jacksonville’s traffic code in February 2023 to forbid “any physical interaction between a pedestrian and an occupant of a motor vehicle.”

Solicitors are told they’re breaking the law, then can be warned in writing, then fined $100 and by the fourth violation can be jailed for up to 10 days.

Listing a set of dates and corners where its solicitors have been warned by police, the lawsuit says it wants to keep distributing its newspaper “but it fears its solicitors will be cited or arrested.”

Saying city streets are traditional public forums, the suit argues the law amounts to a solicitation ban and therefore “a content-based restriction on speech” that’s automatically unconstitutional.

The ordinance instead cited the fact that the Jacksonville metro area was identified in a 2022 report from a transportation-safety group as having the country’s sixth-highest rate of pedestrian fatalities.

However, that report framed the fatality rate as largely a result of roads being designed to move vehicles fast without enough consideration for the safety of pedestrians, not dangerous conduct by pedestrians.

The ordinance sets up rules allowing people to solicit for charity on roadsides, but the lawsuit calls that “largely illusory.”

Besides criticizing the rules as vague, the suit says the the law only allows fundraising for two three-day periods each year, meaning COSAC would be frozen out of soliciting in Jacksonville for 359 days of the year.

Restrictions on roadside soliciting have been a recurring subject in municipal government in recent years. Gainesville officials in 2021 weighed a ban on sitting or standing in some medians following the death of a man who was panhandling.

State Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, filed a statewide bill for this year’s session of the Florida Legislature that would ban approaching motorists for donations, but there was no companion bill in the Senate and it hasn’t advanced.

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