April 16, 2021
New Orleans I saw an interesting note recently. Massachusetts, our blue state bastion of liberalism in the usual political polarity debates, finally came on board in classifying public solicitation of funds that some call “begging,” as free speech. In December 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court became the latest state to strike down “a state law making it illegal for people to ask for money for their own support on public roads.” Hear, hear!
This brought back a million memories of the golden days of canvassing, which in fact is still bringing in a lot of gold both here and abroad. The Massachusetts decision relied on a key Supreme Court ruling that has been the linchpin for protecting this monetized speech. In 1980, reflecting the early days when canvassing was revolutionizing direct fundraising in its own way for some organizations, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment that the First Amendment protected solicitation for money.
Schaumburg is a smallish Chicagoland suburb in Illinois best known as a giant mall mecca. Remember when people went to malls? The police in Schaumburg, responding to complaints by the upstanding villagers that men and women were going door to door talking to people about local issues and asking for donations to support their cause, sought to arrest some of them and bar them from doing this in their town. Citizens for a Better Environment now is still an organization, but then it was a bit of an organization, but primarily a fundraising machine, designed by Marc Andersen from his own encyclopedic door to door selling experiences, that contracted with various organizations to raise significant levels of support for their activity, as well as CBE’s.
One derivation of this canvassing system included “tagging”, modeled after the firefighters’ annual fundraising system where donations would be put in a boot and the donor would get a “tag” thanking them. Many canvass crews also employed tagging, as did ACORN. Since this happened on city streets during the time stoplights were changing, police regularly responded, allowing cities to try and shut all of this down was a threat to public safety. As states were slowly aligning with the Supreme Court, we had organizers arrested for “public begging” while tagging in Denver for example. We had long running back and forth battles on this issue in New Orleans that the courts routinely settled in our favor.
Now, seeing people on the street tagging for organizations is not as common and seen as déclassé, I suppose, but it has become ubiquitous and a livelihood for some lower income men and women. Thanks to canvassers and the Schaumburg decision, it is also protected activity. That doesn’t mean that harassment of the poor has ended. Even in another bastion of blue, New York City, along with Yonkers, Niagara, and elsewhere, there are still determined efforts to get the poor to stop fundraising on the streets, even if no better source of sustenance is being offered.
The poor may always be with us in the mangled biblical quote, but for god’s sake, hide them away where no one can see them or the results of our public policies and curious morality. Many organizations can credit canvassing and similar tools for their survival, but it’s a nice footnote to the fight for funds that there are many lower income people also surviving thanks to the rights won to protect their own quiet, but persistent, speech and support.
Check out this track, “Black Hole Sun,” from the latest live album by Norah Jones, courtesy of KABF: