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.