Iowa cities are reviewing concerns raised over panhandling restrictions

By: - April 7, 2022 4:03 pm

ACLU of Iowa is warning four Iowa cities that ordinances against panhandling are too restrictive of free speech rights. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Four Iowa cities say they are reviewing concerns with the legality of ordinances that restrict panhandling.

The ACLU of Iowa says such ordinances are unconstitutional because they wrongly shut down the free speech of people who are soliciting financial assistance from members of the public.

In some cities, such ordinances have been used to stop people from holding signs asking for money and stop them from putting out containers to collect donations.

The ACLU of Iowa says it has sent formal letters to city leaders in Bettendorf, Davenport, Coralville and Dubuque, asking them to repeal their panhandling ordinances to avoid what the organization calls “the risk of litigation” over the issue.

ACLU of Iowa staff attorney Shefali Aurora. (Photo courtesy of the ACLU of Iowa)

“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help is not only unconstitutional but also inhumane,” said ACLU of Iowa staff attorney Shefali Aurora. “It only prolongs their homelessness. The only true solutions to homelessness are better access to housing and services in our communities.”

Aurora said that instead of criminalizing panhandling, cities can modify restrictions and infrastructure to “optimize pedestrian and traffic safety” without limiting free speech.

Officials in all four cities said this week they are reviewing the ACLU’s concerns or the ordinances themselves.

Davenport’s ordinance appears to be more narrowly drawn than that of many cities, in that it outlaws the solicitation of donations directly on – but not alongside — roadways. However, a separate city ordinance bars “aggressive panhandling” in any public place.

That particular ordinance defines aggressive panhandling as solicitations that involve touching people without their consent, blocking people’s travel, continuing to solicit after a person has refused to make a donation, and following people after asking for a donation. The Davenport ordinance also bans solicitations within 20 feet of an automated teller machine.

In 2018, the ACLU sent letters to three Iowa cities — Des Moines, Council Bluffs, and Grimes — that the organization believed to have approved unconstitutional panhandling ordinances. All three subsequently repealed their ordinances.


Aurora said the ACLU encourages all Iowa cities to take a close look at their ordinances to make sure they don’t have the effect of banning or restricting panhandling or solicitation.

“A city that did not receive a letter should not assume that its ordinances will pass constitutional muster,” she said.

The letters sent by the ACLU detail a series of court decisions that say certain laws restricting panhandling are unconstitutional. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reed v. Town of Gilbert that content-based regulations of free speech were a violation of the First Amendment.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.