As the Iowa City Council gathers to decide whether to make an aggressive panhandling ordinance more rigid, a couple of different thoughts have solidified in my mind. 1) This ordinance radically changes who can speak and gather on the Ped Mall 2) How law enforcement officers will be challenged to fairly enforce the law.
The panhandling ordinance has the chilling effect of lumping all "panhandlers" under one law--that is a street person, a musician, a person seeking support for cancer research, or a political group seeking financial support for an issue are all painted with the same brush. The City Attorney's office say they have no choice, it is a matter of treating everyone as equal under the 1st Amendment. The only thing is, the law leaves out a very important group in this scenario, business owners. By in fact saying that we are doing this to protect our "fragile" business district, this is giving more importance to this group of people's free speech rights than others in the public.
In essence, the public space that is being limited to accommodate business interests is infringing on the civil liberties of all kinds of people from street beggars to Girl Scouts. This is a radical notion. And while the city council sees their action as, middle of the road, balancing the rights of business people and the public interest, they have made the middle of the Ped Mall a free speech zone that does not invite free speech and is likely to create a larger problem than it solves.
All laws come down to enforcement. If the Iowa City Police Department is using its resources to make arrests, it will make them based on who does the reporting. In other words is anyone going to call the police because a Girl Scout is selling her cookies on the Ped Mall? Not too likely. However if the law is enforced only with those people that produce an "yuck" response for others, does the end justify the means? Laws are supposed to create equity, not arm the constabulary in putting people away with whom others label as unsavory to the eye or holding views that are different than their own.
The argument I have made is that the current law works or doesn't work based on who is making the call and who is enforcing it. If people are concerned their businesses suffer from panhandlers, make the call to the police. At least then we'd know that the law was being applied. Currently we know the law is not being used as is shown by the lack of citations. Or maybe common sense is prevailing. Maybe, law or no law, people are are communicating that they are bothered by others' actions and common decency and courtesy are working?
In investigating this issue, I found it really interesting talking to people who do panhandle. They don't want to be a bother and are horrified by those who they see as violating a code of ethics. I think that most people want to live and let live until it comes to their own livelihoods. I truly think that panhandlers and store owners are not that far apart in their desires, they have a difference of opinion of what are fair business practices.