The American Civil Liberties Union has denounced the decision by Pensacola city council members to approve a controversial ban on panhandling in the city’s downtown core.

Council members voted 5-2 at their meeting Thursday evening to approve the ordinance, which is sponsored by Mayor Ashton Hayward and City Council President Brian Spencer and backed by both the Downtown Improvement Board and Greater Pensacola Chamber. Council members P.C. Wu and Sherri Myers voted against the proposal.

The ordinance would prohibit anyone from asking for donations, whether verbally or using a sign, a fact that’s drawn ire from civil liberties advocates.

“Today, the Pensacola City Council voted to strip the neediest members of the community of their free speech rights by banning individuals from asking for public donations,” said ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jacqueline Azis after the vote. “Not only does this ordinance hinder free expression, it also puts the City on constitutionally shaky ground by banning speech simply because some would rather not hear it. It is unconscionable to punish individuals for being poor and for asking for charity.”

“Our leaders should focus on addressing the underlying causes of the very real problem of homelessness in Pensacola, not wasting taxpayer dollars or police resources on enforcing and defending an ordinance that clearly violates the First Amendment,” Azis added.

Council member Sherri Myers said Thursday that she does not feel the ordinance would survive a potential court challenge.

“I don’t feel like this ordinance, as it’s written, is the right approach,” said Myers, who also said she believes the ordinance violates the the First Amendment.

The ACLU had previously warned the council of “serious legal and policy problems” with the ordinance, noting that similar ordinances in other cities have been struck down by the courts.


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