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ACLU Says Panhandling is Free Speech

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The American Civil Liberties Union wants to make it easier for people to panhandle. The non-profit organization argues that it shouldn't be against the law to ask for help. People who panhandle are often told to move along, but can also be fined or arrested and sometimes even jailed, depending on what is outlined in a city's particular ordinance. But the ACLU says not allowing people to panhandle blocks free speech and criminalizes poverty.

On Tuesday Morning, the ACLU of Iowa sent letters to three Iowa cities demanding change. Those cities are Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and Grimes. It's part of a larger effort nationwide to strike down ordinances that the organization believes are unconstitutional.

“We see this an egregious violation of the rights of an especially vulnerable population," said The ACLU of Iowa's Legal Director, Rita Bettis Austen. "That is penalizing people and imposing fines, based on the fact that they have absolutely nothing and they’re asking for a little help. So, we take this very seriously and we certainly hope that we don’t need to litigate this issue, but we’re also prepared to do so, if we have to.”

The ACLU of Iowa says it did not have the capacity to review every city ordinance in Iowa to determine which were constitutional and which were not. The letters sent out this morning to three iowa cities is just based on an initial review. The ACLU of Iowa says by no means does the fact that it sent letters to these three cities mean that any other city in Iowa should feel like they have ordinances that pass constitutional muster.

Jake Anderson, City Administrator for The City of Grimes, provided WHO with the following statement on this development:

"The City of Grimes did receive the ACLU’s letter this morning. We have sent it to our legal counsel for review. To my knowledge, we have not recently taken an enforcement action under this ordinance nor have we in the past. We appreciate the ACLU bringing constitutional issues to our attention."

The City of Des Moines, for its part, provided WHO with the following comment on this matter:

“The City appreciates the interest of ACLU and the media concerning its ordinances and will review the ordinances in question timely in due course. That review will be shared with the City Council and we will proceed as directed by Council. The City staff prosecutor has indicated that he does not recall any prosecutions under the ordinance in the two years he’s been prosecuting. Please take note that the press release is inaccurate insofar as it references that the ordinance is punishable by jail time. The City removed jail time as a possible penalty for ordinance violation in 2017. See 78-11 of the City Code.”

- City Manager's Office