DENVER – In response to an ACLU of Colorado lawsuit filed this morning in federal court, the City of Greeley has agreed to immediately stop enforcing its ordinance that bans pedestrians from being present on traffic medians “for longer than necessary to cross the street.” The lawsuit asserts that the “Median Ban” violates the free speech rights of people who want to stand on medians to engage in expressive conduct, including solicitation of charity. According to the lawsuit, Greeley enacted and has enforced the ordinance to target impoverished and unhoused panhandlers.
“Across Colorado and around the country, medians have long been a safe harbor for conveying messages to motorists, by waving signs for political candidates, advertising businesses, or taking stands on the issues of the day,” said ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein. “Soliciting funds, whether by firefighters holding out their boots or by poor people seeking assistance for themselves, is expression protected by the First Amendment, but forbidden by this Greeley ordinance.”
In recent years, courts have held that ordinances violate the right of free speech when they directly regulate panhandling or solicitation. Some communities, like Greeley, responded by targeting panhandling differently, by banning pedestrian presence in locations where panhandling often takes place. A number of lawsuits challenging such “median bans” are pending around the country and no court has upheld an ordinance like Greeley’s, that bans all pedestrian presence on all medians throughout the city.
ACLU’s clients include three impoverished persons who panhandle on medians in order to obtain the funds to meet their most basic needs and a fourth individual who wants to stand on medians to convey political messages to passing vehicles.
“Solicitation is a means of survival for many, and it is speech protected by the First Amendment,” said ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Arash Jahanian. “It is time for local governments to stop seeking new ways to criminalize poverty and instead focus that precious money and attention on housing and services.”
Today’s lawsuit requests a preliminary injunction, which Greeley does not oppose. “We are pleased that Greeley has agreed to stop enforcing this unconstitutional law,” said Dan Williams, of Hutchinson, Black and Cook, who is litigating the case as an ACLU Cooperating Attorney. “We are proud to be part of this effort and hope that it will have a lasting impact not just in Greeley, but throughout Colorado.”
Additional attorneys representing the plaintiffs are ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Rebecca Wallace and Cooperating Attorney Colleen Koch of Hutchinson, Black and Cook.
The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.