December 14, 2021
WEST PALM BEACH, FL – Advocacy groups and the City of West Palm Beach today jointly dismissed a federal lawsuit in response to a settlement agreement under which the City of West Palm Beach paid damages and repealed its ordinance prohibiting people from asking for donations in certain public spaces.
Southern Legal Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, the ACLU of Florida Palm Beach County Chapter, and Florida Justice Institute had filed the lawsuit Aug. 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, West Palm Beach Division.
“We’re pleased that the City of West Palm Beach quickly agreed to settle this case without protracted litigation,” said Jodi Siegel, executive director of Southern Legal Counsel. “Cities around Florida and throughout the country have been forced to recognize that asking for donations in public places is protected by the First Amendment, and that ordinances prohibiting people from doing so have not been upheld by the courts.”
The West Palm Beach City Commission passed the ordinance in December 2020, thereby prohibiting anyone from asking for money or other items of value in the downtown and Northwood areas. Plaintiffs Rosa Williams, Gary Frashaw, and Thomas Hyland were threatened with arrest if they continued to violate the ordinance.
Prior to the adoption of the ordinance, Southern Legal Counsel, the ACLU of Florida Palm Beach County Chapter, and the ACLU of Florida sent a letter to the West Palm Beach City Commission warning that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The letter addressed the ordinance’s content-based language and how it imposes restrictions on protected speech. As reiterated in the 2015 Supreme Court case Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting expression “because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”
“A legal memo written by an assistant city attorney confirms that the City was warned this type of ordinance could likely not survive constitutional scrutiny,“ said Jackie Azis, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “It is past time for cities to stop enacting these blatantly unconstitutional ordinances and knowingly violating the free speech rights of their residents.”
The lawsuit came on the heels of other cases brought against Florida municipalities which have resulted in laws criminalizing requests for charity being struck down, enjoined from enforcement, or repealed in cities such as Ocala, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Fort Myers, Tampa, and Miami.
A copy of the stipulation of dismissal is available here.