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It was a Christmas greeting tailor-made for a pre-redemption Ebenezer Scrooge.
A viral Facebook photo showed two police officers posing with a collection of taped-together cardboard signs seized from beggars in Mobile, Alabama, above the message “Wanna wish everybody in the 4th precinct a Merry Christmas, especially our captain. Hope you enjoy our homeless quilt. Sincerely, Panhandler patrol.”
The grinning snapshot and glib caption sparked outrage on social media last week. The police chief apologized and the officers are under investigation.
So far, the debate’s focused more on tone than substance. “Mobile police officers ridicule homeless people,” a headline on AL.com concludes. The picture’s been called “insensitive” and the officers have been widely criticized for mockery.
A kinder message wouldn’t make the picture less problematic. The “homeless quilt” is evidence that police are hassling peaceful people and swiping their signs, which is unnecessary and unlawful.
Federal courts have consistently ruled that begging for money is a form of free speech the First Amendment protects. Judges frequently strike down local ordinances that prohibit panhandling, citing the Supreme Court’s 2015 Reed v. Town of Gilbert decision requiring sign regulations to be content-neutral.
That case “has placed literally every panhandling ordinance in the United States at least under risk,” Enrique Armijo, a First Amendment scholar and Elon University School of Law associate dean, told NPR for a story last April.
Police in Mobile enforce that city’s 2010 panhandling law, which seeks to evict beggars from a downtown tourism district but allows them elsewhere. If homeless advocates challenge that law in court, it will fold faster than one of the weatherbeaten signs on display in the precinct’s ill-considered cardboard quilt.
Discomfort and distaste for sidewalk begging have some folks defending police who run panhandlers off. Many people would prefer not to be harangued for handouts. Image-conscious city fathers consider it a drain on quality of life. And there’s an undercurrent of skepticism, as not every sob story is on the up-and-up — a few beggars, to be sure, are more greedy than needy.
Even social service agencies hold panhandlers at arm’s length, with shelters and rescue missions urging people to direct donations to community nonprofits. Homeless people with substance use disorders might use your money for booze and drugs when you intended it for food, clothing and shelter.
Just as caveat emptor holds true for consumers, donors must also beware. Buying food for a panhandler or offering to connect him or her with an aid worker may be preferable to passing out cash. Not everyone holding a sign will be sincere. But choosing how to respond is an individual choice, not an issue ripe for government intervention.
At its core, the issue is whether people should be free to ask others for money. In a free country like the United States, only an affirmative answer is acceptable.
Is panhandling really all that different from other forms of solicitation? Charities and politicians fill your mailbox with plaintive pleas, telemarketers interrupt your dinner to wrest cash from your wallet, friends inundate your Facebook feed with links to crowdfunding pages and highfalutin’ foundations toast benefactors at black-tie receptions.
The requests are similar, but street begging is stigmatized while silver-tongued beggars in blazers and pantsuits are greeted warmly, engaged with polite banter and elected to represent you in Congress. Is it really nobler to rattle the tin cup for a candidate than to pass the hat near the highway overpass?
In all cases, discretion and good judgment apply. You’re not obligated to give, but you can’t fault someone for merely asking. Personal interactions between strangers are voluntary, with both parties free to initiate or terminate at will.
Courts will continue to make mincemeat of unconstitutional laws that ban begging. Legally speaking, this is not a close call. The First Amendment will win and government busybodies will lose.
Meanwhile, if your home is a perennial stop on the professional fundraising circuit, yet you can’t walk past a panhandler without pursing your lips, maybe it’s time for some soul-searching and a dose of Dickensian humility.
Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times. Reach him at 252-265-7813 and firstname.lastname@example.org.