- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Friday challenging an ordinance restricting panhandling in a southwest Missouri town.

The city of Bolivar passed an ordinance in March after complaints that some groups and door-to-door salespeople were being aggressive while seeking donations, including walking into traffic and knocking on vehicle windows to demand money. The ordinance outlaws all “aggressive” panhandling and includes restrictions on passive panhandling. Violations could result in a fine up to $500 and/or up to 90 days in jail.

The ACLU said Friday the ordinance violates Bolivar residents’ free speech rights and is so broad it could prohibit street peddlers such as Girl Scouts if they don’t have a permit, which costs a minimum of $25.

City Attorney Donald Brown said the city was surprised to receive notice of the lawsuit Friday and had not had time to review it.

During a grace period before the ordinance was enforced, Bolivar resident Richard Hill protested by walking around the city about 30 miles north of Springfield carrying a sign that read “I NEED MONEY.”

Hill said he supports efforts to stop aggressive panhandling but believes the restrictions on passive panhandling violate a basic human right for people to communicate with others without interference from the government.

“I don’t want anyone coming up to me and threatening me or trying to grab me to get money, no sane person does,” he said Friday. “But a guy standing on a street corner with a sign saying ‘Please give me money’ or being told where they can sit, that’s a direct violation of the Constitution.”

Hill said lawyers will have to decide the line between aggressive and passive panhandling. But he said when governments arbitrarily remove people’s rights, “a man needs to stand up and say ‘You can’t do that.’”

The ordinance restricts passive panhandling within 20 feet of offices, businesses, single or multi-family residences or any outdoor dining area. It also prohibits soliciting within 20 feet of ATM machines or bank teller windows, and prohibits solicitations of people inside their vehicles, or within 5 feet of a curb or edge of the street.

Public panhandling is allowed if a person or organization gets a permit, only at intersections with stoplights or stop signs, only for six days and no more than twice a year and if everyone is 18 years old. Groups also must arrange to have a uniformed officer where they are soliciting. The ordinance also prohibits soliciting on private property if a person has a sign indicating solicitations aren’t welcome, on public transportation and in groups of more than three people.

The lawsuit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions preventing enforcement of the ordinance, a declaration that it is unconstitutional and nominal damages for Hill.

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