Kevin Hoover: Freedom Of Expression Includes Freedom From Harassment – March 18, 2010

I’ll be the tool that half-heartedly defends this thing. I say half-hearted because the panhandling ordinance is another attempt to legislate away obnoxiousness, and that, to use John Lennon’s phrase, is like trying to shovel smoke with a pitchfork in the wind.

We have laws against smoking, biking and dogging on the Plaza, but those things still happen out there every day. So the effectiveness of yet another behavioral prohibition to make people be nice will, like that of some of the traffic calming measures, likely fade away to nothing within footsteps of Council Chamber. As Frank Zappa said, “Life is such a ball, I run the world from City Hall.”

I offer sincere appreciation to all the people who sound the civil liberties alarm whenever these freedom-nibbling statutes are proposed. We need to be aware of all the very real slippery-slope arguments.

Oh wait, I’m in favor of this, sort of. Since I’m obviously in the business of free expression, I have to be concerned about insults to the First Amendment. But in this case, as far as any peril to the Constitution... I’m just not feeling it.

All kinds of behaviors are being put in the “free speech” category, and berating people for their money seems like a stretch.

There was a young passer-through maybe eight years ago who made a living parking his scruffy self four or five feet from the ATMs at Bank of America and Washington Mutual, staring at customers as they punched in their codes and withdrew money. He generated all kinds of police calls because he creeped people out. Implicit in his looming presence was that a handout would prevent him from just reaching out and grabbing your stuff.

If that was his form of “protected expression,” then one can just as easily claim that using an ATM is a work of art on some level, and deserves to be shielded from interference. I mean, what if your account password is something really witty and creative, and some beggar over your shoulder is preventing you from using it? That punk might as well be smashing Michaelangelo’s Pietà, or burning the Library of Alexandria!

People deserve to feel comfortable when out in public. Why, there oughtta be a law.

Seriously, why isn’t spending a pleasant time downtown, walking and chatting with your companion without some guy getting in your face and demanding your money or take-out dinner considered protected speech?

Shane made it sound like you could just say “no” to these people and they’d politely give up their pursuit of your goodies. Sometimes that works, and they say “Thank you, have a nice day.” Other times they say... different things.

I sometimes wonder why the people who actually produce wealth – work all day at jobs they don’t necessarily love, shop at stores, create the paychecks that turn into “spare change” that everyone's after – don’t get much consideration from the outspoken heroes of the Constitution.

These First Amendment champions didn’t seem to have any problem with abridging speech when it was military recruiters having restrictions placed on what they could say to whom, and neither did I.

It’s not at all unreasonable to approach the problem of public pestering with a gentle mix of incentives and enforcement.

Many of the traveler/beggars seem to have money enough for cigarettes, dogs and their exalted nugs. They aren’t making very good budgeting decisions if they’re dependent on the kindness/fearfulness of strangers for these necessities of life.

If they’re just going to waste money on tobacco and booze, why do we have to endure the sales pitch? Why would we want to enable self-destructive behavior? It’s another form of recruitment that needs to be limited.

And another thing. The North Coast Resource Center (NCRC) has gotten everything it demanded from the City over the past year-and-a-half. Unlike any other institution, it was allowed to bypass public process entirely. With no Planning Commission meetings or anyone asking the public what it thought, the NCRC got a Conditional Use Permit and fresh lease on its very own City building. Now, mid-day lunches have been resumed, too. All of this was under the promise that the outreach programs would abate bothersome begging by pulling people away from exploitative nuisance activity.

So wouldn’t it be sort of a force multiplier to push a little bit as well?

It’s not at all unreasonable to approach the problem of public pestering with a gentle mix of incentives and enforcement.

There isn’t any substantive impingement on civil liberties from this little law, which basically says people can’t harsh other people’s mellows in certain specified places.

All kinds of limits exist on public behavior. You can’t yell at people. You can’t say certain words.  Why is it OK to demand the contents of other people’s pockets? The panhandling ordinance is really just regulating an offensive business practice.

There are still innumerable ways to express onesself, – on soapboxes, with signs, letters to editors, blogs, publisc comment at council meetings... and if anyone tries to take Brent’s cardboard and marking pens away from him, they’ll have to answer to me! Really, those sign guys often as not end up in the Eye, massively magnifying their message, such as it is.

As far as the Girl Scouts and Breast Health solicitors go, I doubt that there’s a big enough dork in 9.2 square mile Arcata to complain to police about them – a butthead of that magnitude just wouldn’t fit within city limits.

The anti-ordinance people are draping themselves in Girl Scout uniforms just like the cannabis tycoons pretend like they’re compassionate medical caregivers. It’s just exigent conflation of skeeziness with nobility, and a deceptive tactic.

So, the thundering defenses of the Constitution are, in this case, misplaced. The ordinance is well-intentioned, narrowly defined and mildly worthy. If it means some granny and her grandkid can make their way Ninth Street without being harassed by some predatory scrounge lizard, hooray.

It’s just another case of the bad decisionmakers/non-contributors among us degrading conditions for everyone.


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  1. Thomas Paine Jr said:

    The California Supreme Court ruled that directly asking for money is illegal. Regardless of the Arcata ordinance.
    The only thing Arcata has to do is provide “ample places ” for people to ask for money, or to ask you “indirectly” to contribute to a cause.
    The salvation army CAN NOT legally ask for DIRECT contributions, so no more bell ringing christian jerks to deal with.
    The city can not now legally stop people from “flying signs” everywhere, they must allow it in some places or they are in violation of the law.

    Just to make sure it is clear: It is never ever ever legal to walk up to someone and DIRECTLY ASK THEM FOR MONEY.

  2. Erin Furey said:

    I lived in Arcata for two months recently and I was shocked to see such a small town have such a high homeless population. I am sure it is an attraction to these people that there is downright good marijuana there. As many of these people are war veterans, abuse survivors, and family outcasts, or orphans. And of course..lets state the big one…some are just addicts, alcoholics, and mentally ill. My point is that we cant just turn are backs on these people and put them all in the same category. Sure there are some who are unworthy of your donations..because they are purely scamming you and are great con artists…but hey…I met many there on the streets while I was passing by..who are starving, have no money for shelter..b/c they cant come up with the security deposit and first months rent..and they have no jobs..b/c jobs are so scarce in Arcata, and many of the college kids have taken up the jobs that these people may be capable of doing. My advice is that you all use your intuition and judgement carefully when passing them by, and think about each individual..what there story may be. Life is hard..and life is not fair. These people are strong..they are survivors…they have endured alot of pain (some of them.) I would bet 75 percent of them are not begging because they really want to or because its a sport…I think there is a real need..and we must lend a hand and offer some advice and support, whether it be our kind words, offering shelter, offering jobs, offering counseling, rides, church, guidance, whatever you can offer. Financial support is needed but that is only a temporary band aid on the true problem…lets start reaching out and showing them others care. Lets be the family they never had or knew. Lets point them in the right direction and give them hope that they are not alone in this world. We are all in this together…we must not look the other way. Looks can be decieving, and if we take a closer look at the soul in the bums body..we will find that they are not so different than us. They have feelings..and they feel pain too. Lets change Arcata one by one…not that would be something to be proud of. I can assure you…the more you reach out…the more your karma will be glorious.

  3. Sister Sue said:

    I live in Arcata but I seldom go to the Plaza, because almost every time I go, people ask me for money. Do they even understand that I work hours on end to support myself and make my own buying decisions? What possible reason would I give away my money to someone who could just as easily also work for what they wish to purchase? I only give to the Salvation Army, so get the hell out of my face and get a job, or move somewhere there is work. You are draining our resources, not contributing in any meaningful way. There is right and wrong, and we all have our pain and loss to deal with, but not by leeching off well meaning and hard working fellow citizens. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

  4. Erik said:

    I’m writing this largely based on my memories of growing up in Humboldt County, and repeated visits home since then, Back then, the Plaza had been completely abandoned to the local homeless/professional begging community. I hope it’s not that bad again, but anyway, here goes:

    Rett, your response to Kevin doesn’t respond to any of his arguments. In fact, I can’t really tell what you’re talking about, other than a general plea to “celebrate our differences.” What do your general accusations of “pharmaceutical companies allowed to create drugs that kill” have to do with the issue of obnoxious and harassing panhandlers? And what does “celebrating the differences” among us have to do with the duty of taxpayers, who have paid for exactly 100% of every bench, meter of concrete and blade of grass in all urban spaces everywhere, to meekly submit to harassment, following, and curses from those who have chosen to spend their time haranguing wage-earners for free money?

    There’s a centuries-old legal tradition in this country of identifying the difference between “freedom of expression” and “verbal acts.” Deliberately inciting a riot; targeting an individual for attack by a mob; standing outside an elementary school shoving gruesome anti-abortion propaganda at fourth-graders; screaming “fire” for a joke in a crowded theater–they all involve “speech” but clearly are destructive and/or dangerous _conduct_ as well.

    Sometimes “expression” is also conduct. Intimidating people at ATMs; camping out in public spaces to create a tense, violent, and/or threatening atmosphere to warn taxpayers from attempting to enjoy those areas themselves; following and demanding money from passersby and yelling curses them and their children when refused–these are the kinds of conduct that happen to include “expression” but that also that make the public square a hostile zone.

    Compassion for the less fortunate is one thing; letting beggars (or anyone else) get away with absolutely all offensive conduct short of actually assaulting people is another.

    I’ll just note here that I’ve lived in a number of big cities with major homeless problems–people literally destroyed by war, addiction, or mental illness, and at the mercy of passerbys’ compassion and city homeless services. Arcata’s Plaza beggars have always struck me as lightweights: casual potheads, trustafarians, and dropouts, working the system and scamming for change from the same people they deride as “sellouts.” They’d last about fifteen minutes in Southeast DC, Baltimore, NYC, or Chicago.

    Finally, with all respect to John Lennon, a lot of obnoxiousness can be, and is, effectively legislated. Social norms result in large part from a whole raft of laws regulating conduct, mostly invisible to us until someone breaks them. I don’t like obnoxious, drunk, cursing panhandlers, and I especially don’t like them following and haranguing me and my family. Ought there to be a law? Hell, yes, there oughta be a law.

  5. Rett said:

    Not so long ago people were convicted based on color, greed, religous belief. It’s still *real *alive regardless of laws designed to protect us . Kevin ,each day we walk though life *totally aware of our surroundings, what may seem safe enough? is not necessarily true. Kevin lets take a moment to look at pharmaceutical companies allowed to create drugs that kill? what about the food we eat? the air we breath?, the very politicians we pay to protect us?. The news out there is *complicated and often *corrupt but we allow it? and often have no choice in the matter or do we?. we know all about it, often enough time and energy seems wasted no we can’t change everything even though we want to, so we learn to accept. The panhandlers, the mentally ill ,the challenged, people are always going to be different for whatever reason? that is the least of our problems. We need patience, compassion, and kindness to be given freely, we can walk past it, but it will always be there, right in front of us, now think how best to deal with it?.
    Life is a journey ,the road you travel up to you? some may never own a car, others without direction will try to reach that place? but know each of us has the right to travel* as they wish *with or without what we call normal.
    No not everything is changed by a law, not all laws work to benefit the many who are unable to make clear decisions ? many laws have proven to fail us, often we must* make an adjustment within, looking at the larger picture in life, suddenly the panhandler is nothing at all. Picture this life as a giant puzzle, we are the pieces *perhaps some large, many odd, different in shape & color, others never really seem to fit in, but we need each other to complete the puzzle.
    This is for you Jo
    Difference is what the world is all about
    Looking within walking by lending a hand saying something kind
    God Bless Arcata Angels

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