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Thursday, October 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington

Olympia gets rid of its anti-panhandling rules following Supreme Court decision

By Abby Spegman Olympian

The city of Olympia has removed references to panhandling from its municipal code in response to a Washington state Supreme Court decision that partially invalidated a Lakewood ordinance restricting panhandling.

Olympia’s ordinance had prohibited panhandling, defined as “any solicitation made in person, requesting an immediate donation of money or other thing of value,” within 25 feet of an ATM or parking pay station. It also banned aggressive panhandling, defined in part as “conduct that would likely intimidate a reasonable person. …”

According to a city staff report, the city’s definition had targeted speech based on its content and prohibited that speech in places “historically recognized as a traditional public forum, such as sidewalks and other ‘public places.’”

“What we did is we looked at our municipal code and just put it in alignment with the Supreme Court decision,” said Kellie Purce Braseth, a city spokeswoman.

The City Council approved the change Dec. 19. Purce Braseth noted that harassment and assault still are prohibited, as is any activity that obstructs pedestrian or vehicular traffic.

The state Supreme Court in July 2016 overturned the conviction of a man who walked onto a highway off-ramp in Lakewood with a sign saying he needed help. Lakewood’s ordinance prohibited asking for money as a charity at certain locations, including near ATMs and public transportation stops and at on- and off-ramps and major intersections.

The court said those last two were overly broad.

Cities have reacted differently to the decision, said Nancy Talner, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. The group submitted an amicus brief in the Lakewood case.

In Yelm, for instance, the City Council passed an ordinance in November prohibiting people from asking for money at public transportation stops or within 15 feet of ATMs, self-service fuel pumps or people getting in and out of their vehicles. That same month, the Gig Harbor City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting drivers from interacting with pedestrians on certain roads to prevent crashes caused by drivers stopping to give to panhandlers.

Talner said removing references to panhandling may not be enough if other language in a city’s code still targets people asking for money.

“When we talk about panhandling, it’s a free speech issue,” Talner said. “The question is for each ordinance, is it crossing the line into unconstitutionally limiting free speech?”

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