Many cities and some states increasingly are cracking down on panhandling, driven in large part by the unlikely combination of thriving downtowns and the lingering effects of the Great Recession, reports Stateline. The number of cities with outright bans on panhandling increased by 25 percent between 2011 and 2014, while cities with restrictions on begging in specified public places, such as near schools or banks, rose by 20 percent, says the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, an advocacy group. In Cincinnati, where begging is already banned near ATMs, parking meters and restaurants, the city is considering a ban on panhandling within 50 feet of schools. In July, Tennessee outlawed aggressive panhandling, making it a misdemeanor for panhandlers to touch strangers without their permission, block their path, follow them or make threats.
Panhandling bans have faced legal challenges on First Amendment grounds. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling provided additional ammunition to opponents who argue such laws trample free speech protections. In a seemingly unrelated case that did not involve panhandling, the court said Gilbert, Az., could not restrict the size of a church's signs advertising its services. The court said that in most cases, “content-based” speech restrictions are unconstitutional. In contrast, “content-neutral” restrictions, such as even-handed restrictions on noise or blocking traffic, generally are allowed. At least three federal judges have struck down city panhandling laws or sent cases back to lower courts since the Gilbert ruling, says Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center.