GRAND RAPIDS – The city and state denied allegations that enforcement of the state's begging law violates the right to free speech.
The America Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against Grand Rapids and the state of Michigan asking that a state law criminalizing peaceful panhandling be struck down.
The ACLU contends that “peaceful panhandling is protected speech under the First Amendment.”
It said others engage in political speech and charitable solicitation in public places without fear of arrest.
The city denied that begging is an “expressive activity,” comparable to political speech or charitable solicitation, and said that “if such other activity is engaged in an unlawful manner, law enforcement efforts might also be undertaken.”
In responses filed this week in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Assistant City Attorney Margaret Bloemers and Assistant Attorney General Ann Sherman denied allegations that the state law is unconstitutional.
The ACLU sued on behalf of James Speet and Ernest Sims of Grand Rapids. Both have been arrested for panhandling.
Speet was arrested on July 21 on South Division Avenue south of Burton Street.
The ACLU said he was standing in the grass between the sidewalk and street holding a sign that said, “Need Job, God Bless.” When he saw a police officer, he started folding his sign, the ACLU said.
The city said he was holding a sign that said, “hungry,” and that he threw the sign to the ground when he saw the police officer, Gregory Bauer. The city denied that Speet was immediately arrested.
“Officer Bauer conversed with Speet and only after he admitted to begging, was he handcuffed,” Bloemers wrote.
ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman says 399 people in Grand Rapids have been arrested on begging-related charges since 2008. She said her group is not opposed to laws criminalizing aggressive panhandling.
The city says it targets aggressive and repeat panhandling.