A proposed citywide panhandling ban has prompted discussion about Chattanooga’s homeless population, however, some people are also concerned about the legislation’s constitutionality.
The bill in question was built as an extension of an existing ordinance, which bans panhandling downtown.
The new ordinance, which comes up for a final vote Tuesday night, would extend the ban on panhandling through the entire city.
The panhandling ordinance passed in 2002 specifically stated that passively sitting with a sign or playing music was not considered panhandling.
When the discussion came up recently, some felt that including this definition constituted content-based discrimination, which could be considered a First Amendment violation.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sent an email to several council members detailing the possible ways that the new ordinance might violate the First Amendment. Find the full email at the bottom of this article.
Members of Mercy Junction came to the April 3 city council meeting to address the same concern.
“It’s reckless to go forward with an ordinance when you have an attorney who specializes in this kind of [law] telling you that this is going to be struck down,” Mercy Junction’s Co-director Beth Foster, who was included on the email from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said.
But District 6 City Councilwoman Carol Berz said that the idea that the new legislation violated the First Amendment is “totally inaccurate” because the ordinance focused solely on “aggressive panhandlers.”
“What folks are coming up with has nothing to do with what the legislation said,” Berz said. “We expanded geographical bounds and gave more lenient options than the legislation already had.”
The new ordinance version does not include the language about musicians.
SoundCorps Executive Director Stratton Tingle expressed his concern during the March 27 meeting that the ordinance would limit his organization’s ability to continue its Sidewalk Stages programming which incentivizes street performers to play in public spaces since musicians are not directly addressed.
“I think the consequences could potentially negatively impact people who are really trying to do good for our city,” Tingle said at the meeting.
At the April 3 meeting, District 4 Councilman Darrin Ledford and Mitchell both asked Deputy City Attorney Phillip Noblett for clarification on whether musical performances would be considered illegal under the new ordinance.
“It does not mention music whatsoever in the ordinance,” Noblett said.
Even though the updated version does not make playing music for money explicitly illegal, Tingle said that he still wishes there was some specific exclusion for musicians from panhandlers. He said the group will likely try to propose an amendment to the ordinance to fix this.
If the ordinance passes in its final reading on April 10, it will become a part of city code.
Alina Hunter-Grah is a contributing writer. She currently attends UTC, where she was previously the news editor of the student newspaper, The University Echo. Alina also worked at CNN during the summer of 2017 and is the former Chattanooga correspondent for 2nd & Church, a literary magazine based out of Nashville. You can reach Alina at [email protected] or on Twitter @alinahuntergrah.