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ACLU of Iowa requests four cities, including Dubuque, repeal their “unconstitutional” panhandling ordinances

The ACLU of Iowa has sent letters to four cities stating that their panhandling ordinances violate free speech and must be repealed.
Published: Apr. 5, 2022 at 6:38 PM CDT
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DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) -The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa has sent letters to four cities stating that their panhandling ordinances violate free speech and must be repealed.

The four cities that received letters from the ACLU are Bettendorf, Davenport, Coralville, and Dubuque. Staff with the ACLU say cities who do not repeal their ordinances could be at risk of litigation.

“Laws like this that outlaw panhandling are unconstitutional because they wrongly block individuals’ free speech rights,” Shefali Aurora, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Iowa, said. “Such ordinances are also ineffective because, by criminalizing poverty, all they do is drive people further into homelessness.”

The ACLU of Iowa states Dubuque’s Aggressive Panhandling Prohibited Ordinance includes a ban on speech that does not threaten public safety and is ineffective public policy. The city’s website says the goal is to protect pedestrians and foster a “safe and harassment free climate in public places”. However, it adds that the ordinance is not meant to limit anyone from exercising their rights to free speech to picket or protest or protest or even solicit funds, but the ACLU says that is exactly what banning panhandling does: violate free speech.

For that reason, the ACLU is asking Dubuque and the other cities to take three steps:

  1. The letters ask each city to repeal its unconstitutional panhandling ordinance.
  2. The ACLU asks each city to instruct officers not to enforce its unconstitutional ordinance while the city goes through the process to repeal the ordinance.
  3. The ACLU has also asked that any pending prosecutions under the ordinance be dismissed.

”Punishing homeless people with fees, fines and arrests for simply asking for help is not only unconstitutional, but also inhumane,” Aurora added. “Rather than criminalizing panhandling through ordinances like these, cities can modify restrictions and infrastructure to optimize pedestrian and traffic safety while avoiding being prejudicial to those in poverty and also without limiting protective speech.”

Dubuque’s city attorney was not available this afternoon for comment. A spokesperson with the city said, however, city officials are not aware of any citations being issued since at least 2015. The ordinance has been in place since 2009.

A statement provided to TV9 also said the city attorney plans to review the materials from the ACLU and make a recommendation to the City Council in the near future.

This is the second time in five years the ACLU has sent this kind of letter to cities. In 2018, the group sent letters to Council Bluffs, Des Moines and Grimes. Aurora explained all three cities repealed their ordinances after receiving the letters.

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