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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Panhandling and Free Speech

A couple of months ago, a resident wrote to ask me about the problem of panhandling in Maplewood. It's something I often see en route to city hall, at the intersection of White Bear and Highway 36, and I agree that it's a nuisance.

I shared the resident's concerns with our police chief. However, the First Amendment protects the right of people to stand at a corner with a sign, whether it contains a political slogan or declares "Family in Crisis" or "Will Work for Food." As Chief Thomalla explained by e-mail:
I wish there was more we could do about these folks. We have spoken with the City Attorney on several occasions and have been told there is a court case out of Mpls. where it was determined these folks can stand on the corner with their signs and if we attempt to stop this, we are violating their first amendment rights. Of course that doesn’t mean they can violate state traffic laws and when they step off the curb, they can be cited for obstructing traffic. As with many things, it is difficult to catch them doing this as they don’t do it when there is a squad car around. From time to time, we have issued citations for this.

We are aware they have “shifts” because we have been called in the past when they get into a dispute as to whose turn it is to work the corner. We will continue to do what we can. Please encourage those you know not to “feed” their habit. If the money were to dry up, they would move on. Unfortunately in this case, the people in Maplewood are too generous.
There may be a couple lessons in here, not only about the First Amendment protecting speech that may annoy or offend us. The other lesson would be about whether we want to "feed the habit" -- providing the feedback that actively rewards, enables and encourages nuisance behavior, whether that behavior is panhandling at street corners, distributing anonymous and misleading flyers, or using public comment in city meetings as a way to promote their cable access TV shows and websites. I think our current mayor has indeed been too "generous" in this last regard, especially.


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