sidewalk control bill criminalizes homeless, violates 1st

Tom Boland (
Sat, 16 May 1998 11:18:57 -0700 (PDT)
FWD Philadelphia Daily News - May 12, 1998


The proposed sidewalk control ordinance is protecting the public's right to
unobstructed use of the sidewalk, but it would stifle First Amendment
rights and criminalize homeless people.

Many of the ordinance's provisions prohibiting sitting, lying down and
panhandling on city sidewalks seem to be specifically targeting the
homeless. Citing them for harmless "crimes" may make them ineligible for
public benefits, making it even more difficult to move off the streets.
Instead of paying police to enforce these provisions and arrest people
living on the streets, the city might be better off using the money to
create social programs that actually help the homeless.

Some of the bill's proposals to ban leafleting and posting of signs are
clear violations of civil liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Sidewalk, parks and streets have always been vital public spaces for
debate, communication and demonstration. The ordinance will infringe on
constitutionally protected freedoms to disseminate information and engage
in political protest.


The sidewalk control ordinance, intended to ensure that the sidewalks are
clean and unobstructed to promote commerce, recreation and the city's
vibrancy, could restrict civil liberties and create a number of problems.
It would punish people involved in distributing leaflets, posting of signs
or participation in political demonstrations. This form of public
dissemination of knowledge is a
constitutionally protected freedom the ordinance seeks to restrict. The
violation of freedoms must be prevented.

Moreover, the ordinance will criminalize homeless people. People found
sitting or lying on sidewalks will be punished. Council would be better off
investigating alternative measures to aid the homeless.

Additionally, the ordinance will waste everyone's tax dollars. If
challenged in court, the city will be forced to spend a great deal of money
defending it. Then, on the slight chance the bill withstands constitutional
review, the city might have to spend even more to enforce the provisions. I
would rather see the city use tax dollars to find long-term solutions to
this problem. The city must find long-term solutions to homelessness,
rather than spend precious tax dollars on violating civil liberties and
making criminals of people in an unfortunate situation.


"Quality of Life" legislation, says Russell Byers (column, May 7)
represents "democracy in action." Is it democratic to target a specific
group and make them vulnerable to citations, arrests and criminalization?
Is it democracy in action to create legislation that allows police to round
up those on the streets and remove them for nothing more than lying or
sitting -- especially when many of them have no other options?

This is how I interpret what the city's proposed "Sidewalk Behavior"
ordinance will do. A significant portion I see as explicitly aimed at those
who are homeless. If this ordinance passes, many homeless persons will be
in effect categorized as criminals and subject to policing and harassment.

Clearly, we need effective policing when genuine violations of persons and
communities occur. And some of the quality-of-life initiatives are
necessary and reasonable. But other proposals, particularly those affecting
the homeless population, are blatantly discriminatory and inhumane. We need
quality of life for all of us, not for some at the expense of others. We
need democracy for all citizens, not for a select few.



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