A protest near Cranston City Hall Saturday called attention to the Cranston City Council‘s efforts, in collaboration with Mayor Alan Fung, to pass a law that would fine panhandlers and motorists offering to help panhandlers. The protest, which lasted about three hours, drew a lot of attention from motorists at the intersection of Park and Pontiac Avenue. The law would not only ban motorists from handing money to panhandlers, it would also ban school fundraising, selling flowers or newspapers to motorists and political protesters handing out flyers. (Like the protesters at this intersection were doing.)
Cranston’s attempt to pass a similar ordinance was challenged in court by the Rhode Island ACLU and struck down. An ordinance in Providence suffered a similar fate. City Council President Michael Farina seems intent on passing this new ordinance and seems confident that the city council has sufficiently disguised the intent of the bill to fool the courts.
Fung and Farina claim that this new bill is not about criminalizing poverty but about public safety. Opponents of the bill say that the inevitable court challenge will waste thousands of city dollars at taxpayer expense.
To John Donegan, this is a First Amendment issue. “Do not let the Cranston City Council limit your freedom of speech,” said Donegan to passing motorists, “Don’t let them make illegal campaigns like ‘Fill the Boot.’ Don’t let them criminalize compassion. Call your representative and say ‘No’ to the panhandling ordinance.”
Cranston State Representative Charlene Lima has introduced a version of the panhandling ordinance to the General Assembly in an effort to take the issue statewide, but that bill is seriously flawed and unlikely to advance. Lima is also a co-sponsor of Representative Robert Nardolillo‘s bill that would criminalize loitering on highways or median strips. Both bills are thinly veiled attempts to criminalize poverty.
A public hearing on the Cranston ordinance is scheduled for February 15 at the Cranston City Hall.