If Donations Are Free Speech, so is Begging

New Orleans   Free speech is a funny thing, though many are no longer laughing. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The Supreme Court in one decision after another from Citizens’ United on out has said that the act of giving money is free speech for the rich. There are no limits other than the size of their bank balances. Until phenomena like the Sanders’ campaign upended the role of smaller donations from regular people, the first primary for both parties has been the “money” race to determine who can amass the largest war chest. Remember the ancient history that favored former Governor Jeb Bush in the Republican lists for that reason alone.

At the same time people begging for donations in public other than politicians, arts groups, ball teams, and scores of others were seen as panhandlers and beggars. Cities, counties, and states passed ordinances and all manner of legislation defining the later as public nuisances, even though the former, especially the intersection between politicians and the rich is widely recognized as a threat to democracy, not simply public safety. Most of public officials weren’t offended by the sight of politicians with their hats and hands out to the rich, perhaps because there with the grace of god go they, but they were horrified by the homeless and determined to protect the public from the destitute or the down on their luck.

The tide has been forced to turn the other way. Federal judges have ruled panhandling restrictions unconstitutional in cities in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and Massachusetts recently. Challenges are outstanding in Washington, DC, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Pensacola, Florida.

Not only does this give more justice to the poor, but it is also a boon to nonprofit fundraising. Welcome to something called “tagging.” Many credit the notion to firefighters who annually get out on street corners with their boots for a donation to this or that and would give donors a “tag,” a small piece of paper thanking them. ACORN’s canvass program in the 1980s taught everyone, including the organizing staff how to run a tag program. We had a hugely successfully program in New Orleans for example for both ACORN and the United Labor Unions. Cecile Richards, now the much esteemed director of the national Planned Parenthood Association, used to talk regularly about how great a tagger she was back in the day, and indeed she was! We were in and out of court with Orleans and other parishes on our free speech rights in this regard. Decades later they bent to the our wheel, though some try to claim panhandlers have to be seated and not mobile. They allow various groups to do whatever. I watched someone panhandling yesterday while I was at a stoplight, jump up from their milk crate and block traffic exiting the freeway with wild gesticulations because an emergency vehicle was trying to get through.

I applaud the overturned rulings in Colorado particularly. We had a tagger arrested decades ago in Denver, which we litigated aggressively, though unsuccessfully in the end, when the tagger was convicted of so-called “public begging.” Justice delayed is indeed justice denied, but once achieved no matter the years, is still sweet.

When I recommend tagging as a fundraising mechanism both in the US and around the world organizers sometimes look at me with shock and horror in their eyes. I’m mystified. In New Orleans in the early 80s, New Orleans sometimes took in more than $1000 on a Saturday! What could be wrong or demeaning about asking the public for support for our causes?

And when it comes to the poor begging, if politicians don’t like the sight of them, there’s an easy solution: provide them more money, housing, and benefits.

Until then, people are going to do what has to be done. That doesn’t just apply to the rich.


Support Increasing for Banning Guns at Public Demonstrations

New Orleans  There are practical steps that can be taken to prevent another Charlottesville, especially the armed and dangerous intimidation waiting to pull a trigger in the future.

Anthony Romero, the head of the ACLU, announced that they will not defend groups on free speech grounds who are seeking to march with guns in armed protests. Hear, hear!

An op ed in the Times by John Feinblatt who is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety makes a good case, much of which I will share now:

When militia members and white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Va., last Saturday with Nazi flags and racist placards, many of them alsocarried firearmsopenly, including semiautomatic weapons. They came to intimidate and terrify protesters and the police. If you read reports of the physical attacks they abetted, apparently their plan worked.

Those who came to Charlottesville openly carrying firearms were neither conveying a nonviolent political message, nor engaged in self-defense nor protecting hearth and home.

Plain and simple, public terror is not protected under the Constitution. That has been the case throughout history.

Under English common law, a group of armed protesters constituted a riot, and some American colonies prohibited public carry specifically because it caused public terror. During Reconstruction, the military governments overseeing much of the South responded to racially motivated terror (including the murder of dozens of freedmen and Republicans at the 1866 Louisiana Constitutional Convention) by prohibiting public carry either generally or at political gatherings and polling places. Later, in 1886, a Supreme Court decision, Presser v. Illinois, upheld a law forbidding groups of men to “parade with arms in cities and towns unless authorized.” For states, such a law was “necessary to the public peace, safety and good order.”

In other words, our political forebears would not have tolerated open carry as racially motivated terrorists practiced it in Charlottesville. They did not view open carry as protected speech. According to the framers, the First Amendment protected the right to “peaceably” — not violently or threateningly — assemble. The Second Amendment did not protect private paramilitary organizations or an individual menacingly carrying a loaded weapon. Open carry was antithetical to “the public peace.” Lawmakers were not about to let people take the law into their own hands, so they proactively and explicitly prohibited it.

Today, the law in most states is silent on open carry — and because most states do not explicitly prohibit it, it becomes de facto legal. All of this explains why some states sensibly and constitutionally reject the open-carry absolutists and prohibit open carry or regulate the carrying of guns at public demonstrations, or both. For instance, Alabama prohibits bringing a firearm to a public demonstration, and Maryland has a law prohibiting guns at demonstrations and similar public gatherings, after a warning.

Taking to town squares to yell past your political opponents is a rich American custom. Those public spaces and our rights to peaceable assembly and free speech make democratic self-government possible.

Open carry is not part of that tradition, and its history is that of a tool used for specifically racist ends. It corrodes our public spaces and infringes on our rights. It introduces terror and intimidation, where dialogue and debate should prevail.

Rejecting open carry is not about guns. Rejecting open carry is about rejecting terror and honoring fundamental American traditions. In Charlottesville, we saw the dystopian alternative — the most un-American racist and extremist hatred, turning our First and Second Amendment rights on their heads and trying to intimidate the rest of us into silence.

Some are showing the way. This has to stop.