Wednesday, July 7, 2010

That Good Deed Might Cost You $300 in Miami

The doggie bag from your restaurant dinner could be tomorrow's lunch. But then you see someone on the street who needs that meal more than you do. So you hand it over (with a smile) and continue on your way, maybe feeling a little better about yourself.

Then a police officer stops you and hands you a $300 ticket.

That's what could happen if a city ordinance being considered in Miami is enacted into law.

The Miami City Commission is considering a proposal that would prohibit "unauthorized" people and groups from sharing food with homeless people in the downtown area.

Proponents say the ordinance will cut down on litter and ensure the safety of the food that homeless people eat.

Cut down on litter? Give me a break. Beyond the silliness of that, I'll put my lawyer hat on and tell you that the Supreme Court has ruled that the governmental interest in preventing litter was insufficient to justify an ordinance that would have prohibited individuals from handing out literature to those willing to receive it. That ordinance violated the First Amendment right to free speech. (The case is Schneider v. State of New Jersey, Town of Irvington). Of course, a city has the power to punish individuals who throw leaflets (or food wrappers) on the ground, rather than those who hand them out.

Ensure the safety of food given to hungry people? That's even sillier.

Punishing people who try to help homeless people is a new tactic adopted in the past few years by many cities, including Las Vegas, Dallas and my hometown of Orlando. The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty have published a report on this tactic, entitled "Feeding Intolerance."

In Orlando, we're waiting to hear from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in our case. Orlando Food Not Bombs and others challenged the ordinance on constitutional grounds. After a trial, the judge ruled -- for the first time in the United States -- that sharing food with hungry and homeless people in public spaces is expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. The judge also ruled that Orlando's ordinance restricting food sharing violated the right to free exercise of religion. The city appealed, and we're waiting for the appeals court decision.

But whether the ordinance is constitutional or not, should the government be able to tell me to whom I can give my own stuff? Urge the mayor of Miami not to punish those who help the most vulnerable.


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