Akron City Council reacts to threatened suit over panhandling law

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AKRON, Ohio - City council members met in executive session on Monday with their attorneys discussing what they will do about a threatened lawsuit over the city's decade old panhandling law.

The law requires panhandlers to register and get a permit.

Police say it does not apply to those people who stand peacefully on street corners holding signs, but only to the people who aggressively approach others demanding money, food, cigarettes, or anything.

It is a law that rarely results in arrests or citations.

But ACLU cooperating attorney Joseph Mead says it also violates the First Amendment right of freedom of speech and is threatening a costly lawsuit against the City of Akron unless the law is immediately repealed.

"It's obtaining a license; it's registering; it's doing something before you are allowed to speak so the prior approval that you need to speak is what's problematic," Mead explained to Fox 8 News on Monday.

"Typically when you or I want to just engage in conversation in a public space we don't need to ask for permission. Requiring individuals who just want to exercise the right to free speech to first ask the government for permission to do so runs afoul of the most basic longstanding guarantee that you are allowed to speak without asking the government first," said Mead.

He said many federal cases in the past five years have overturned laws like the one in Akron.

City council adjourned the meeting taking no action on Monday.

Council President Marilyn Keith afterwards did indicate that a change in the law may be coming.

"What we are going to do is look at the law that we have right now and even though it has been amended in the past we want to look at the basis for why it was ever done. Are we actually addressing what we need to address so we are protecting the rights of the citizens as well as the rights of the community?" said Keith.

She acknowledged that legislation can evolve and change over time.

"The Supreme Court has overturned something in the past which now makes what we have crafted not as solvent as it should be, so that is why we have to go back and look and make sure that it can withstand the question," said Keith.

Mead says other communities in the area that currently have panhandling laws may be subject to the threat of a lawsuit as well.

He says when a letter was sent to the City of Youngstown over a 'no begging' law there, the law was repealed.

Mead says there are ways to address panhandling without violating freedom of speech.

"Enforce laws that are already on the books in a fair and even-handed way, laws that have nothing to do with speech, laws like disorderly conduct, menacing, laws that regulate behavior instead of the words that are being spoken by an individual," said Mead.​

Read more here.

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