A federal judge has blocked a new law that seeks to restrict panhandling in Arkansas. The law was the second attempt by the Arkansas Legislature to ban people from asking for money and other help on most sidewalks and intersections.
Despite the law passing with bipartisan support, U.S. District Court Judge Billy Roy Wilson said the law proposed by Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) is “plainly unconstitutional.” Collins tells KUAR News he authored the law to put an end to threatening conduct by panhandlers.
“The goal is to stop intimidating, harassing, threatening, dangerous behavior. Not putting people in jail, just stopping bad behavior,” Collins said.
In his ruling Tuesday, Wilson said there are laws already in place in Arkansas to deal with this type of behavior. Collins says he saw the new law as necessary after continuing to receive complaints from constituents after the first law was struck down.
“I’m not as optimistic just because I don’t understand why that wouldn’t have happened automatically,” Collins said. “I don’t understand why law enforcement wouldn’t have been able to make that adjustment on their own, and why things would have been so different after the first begging law was thrown out.”
Critics of the law, including the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of two panhandlers, agree with Wilson’s assertion.
“There wasn’t really a need for this law on public safety grounds. There are myriad other laws that do not intrude on people’s First Amendment rights to deal with any purported public safety or traffic concern. I mean, there’s lots of laws that already exist in Arkansas,” said Bettina Brownstein, an attorney representing the Arkansas ACLU.
Rep. Collins says he’ll work with law enforcement to ensure the existing laws are effective before bringing another bill to the state legislature.
“My goal remains the public safety of the citizens of Fayetteville and Arkansas, and I’m not going to allow, particularly our women, those are the ones that are calling me, to be intimidated and harassed for money when they’re going about their daily business,” Collins said.
Brownstein says blocking the law was the right decision, arguing panhandlers’ rights to free speech are protected by the U.S. Constitution.
“This was about the First Amendment, and yet public safety is a concern, but you can’t use public safety to permissibly intrude on people’s First Amendment rights,” Brownstein said.
A statement from the office of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge says she respectfully disagrees with the decision and that the office is considering its options.