FRANKFORT -- A panhandler cited for defying a city ordinance while holding a sign asking for money won his case before the Kentucky Supreme Court, which ruled his free speech rights were violated.
The court released its unanimous opinion Thursday, striking down the decade-old panhandling ordinance in Lexington. The local law prohibited begging along public streets and intersections in the state's second-largest city.
The justices ruled the ordinance singled out a particular type of speech for criminal prosecution -- begging -- while allowing other forms of speech.
Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., who wrote the opinion, on the court's decision, said the "true beauty" of the First Amendment is it "treats both Cicero and the vagabond as equals."
"Someone standing at a prominent Lexington intersection displaying a sign that reads 'Jesus loves you,' or one that says 'Not my President' has no fear of criminal liability under the ordinance," Minton wrote. "But another person displaying a sign on public streets reading 'Homeless please help' may be convicted of a misdemeanor."
He said there is "rarely a constitutionally valid reason for the government to filter the topics for public discourse."
The city of Paducah has two ordinances that deal with begging and soliciting money, though it's not known if they'll be amended or repealed in light of the court's ruling. McCracken County has no such ordinance.
The city's ordinance on begging states: "No person shall go about from door to door of private homes or commercial and business establishments, or place himself in or upon any public way or public place, to beg or receive alms for himself."
The ordinance on solicitation makes it unlawful for people or groups to "block any road or street in the city, or to do any act designed to stop, slow or impede the movement of vehicular traffic, for the purpose of soliciting money â ¦ from occupants of vehicles in a line of traffic."
The court's ruling came in the case of Dennis Champion, whom police cited in 2014 for holding a homemade sign asking for money at a busy Lexington intersection. In its ruling, the court returned Champion's case to the local court and directed that the charge against him be dismissed.
Lexington officials had said the ordinance was aimed at promoting public safety and ensuring free flow of traffic.
The city also said it has a compelling interest in regulating interactions between pedestrians and motorists.
The Supreme Court said there are "content-neutral ways" the city could achieve the same goals without violating free speech rights.
"For instance, Lexington could prohibit all individuals from approaching stopped motorists -- this more directly targets the behavior the city seeks to alleviate and does so without regard to why an individual steps into traffic," Minton wrote.
Responding to the ruling, Lexington spokeswoman Susan Straub said: "With people asking for help at our intersections, safety has always been our primary concern.
"We will carefully examine options and work on a strategy that puts safety first for everyone involved."
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