Every fall, it has become a tradition for local firefighters to walk along medians and street corners with boots in hand, raising millions of dollars for Jerry Lewis'"kids". Over the past 51 years, the International Association of Fire Fighters has become the largest national sponsor of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. But in a growing number of places, the "Fill the Boot" campaign is threatened by new municipal ordinances adopted in the name of public safety.
Increasingly, local governments are limiting or banning outright solicitations on public rights-of-way, making it illegal for nonprofits and other groups to fundraise from any public roadway, median, sidewalk or street within the corporate limits of a city. As a result, the practice of high school cheerleading and football squads waving cardboard "car wash" signs to raise money for uniforms and other equipment is also endangered.
Osceola County, Florida, recently passed its ordinance after several complaints from the community. "We were having all kinds of problems, from people holding 'sale down the street' signs to fundraising events to panhandling," says Assistant County Attorney Sherry Hopkins. The county, however, sought to address concerns from nonprofits and citizens by making exceptions for special events and fundraisers. While the measure bans people from distributing anything on public rights-of-way, groups collecting donations can apply for a permit, which allows them access to all rights-of-way, including medians.
Such laws typically exist in three forms: They may deal exclusively with vendors, such as newspaper salesmen; or solicitors, such as charity groups and panhandlers; or target both groups. Among the major cities with stringent rules are Houston, Chicago, Denver and Norfolk, Virginia. A few municipalities, such as Grand Haven Township in Michigan, simply prohibit "portable human signs" on rights-of-way.
The most common arguments in favor of anti-solicitation laws revolve around the matter of safety. "The real issue is that once the light turns red, these people go out among cars," says Michael King, a traffic consultant with Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates in New York.
King notes that non-fatal pedestrian accidents involving cars are underreported. But cities can use data on the amount of traffic and number of crashes in a certain area to bolster their arguments. Palm Beach County is on the verge of passing a solicitation law but is awaiting a study by its engineering department on the "extent of dangers at the county's main intersections."
A few years ago, several cities in Florida passed laws regulating vendors and vending machines that line intersections because they created a traffic hazard and blocked side-street sight lines. "If something is going on at an intersection that is unplanned and a group of people makes it so you can't see a guy in a wheelchair crossing the street," says King, "that is where the government has the wherewithal to regulate that activity."
Critics, however, are quick to raise the issue of whether such rules violate First Amendment rights. Cities are allowed to regulate the time, place and manner of protected speech, as long as it is not prohibited.
Several years ago, the Homeless Voice newspaper, which is hawked on streets and medians in exchange for a donation, sued the community of Hallandale Beach, Florida, on the basis of free-speech infringment. The two parties settled in 2004 with the city agreeing to pay the paper $8,500 a year, and the paper agreeing to stop soliciting on city streets.
Some opponents of anti-solicitation laws charge that wealthy cities are trying to smoke out undesirables. Commissioner Jeanne Van Meter acknowledges that Kissimmee, Florida's ordinance was passed to "regulate aggressive panhandlers on medians and in parking lots."
In any case, such laws are proliferating. So be forewarned: Come February, it may be a little harder in some places to buy Valentine's Day roses along a median strip.
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