BOSTON (CBS/AP) — The highest court in Massachusetts on Tuesday struck down a state law making it illegal for people to ask for money for their own support on public roads.
A decision from the Supreme Judicial Court found that the law violated free speech rights because it prohibited people from requesting money for personal support on roadways but specifically allowed the sale of newspapers or event tickets.
The law is “unconstitutional on its face under the First Amendment,” the court stated.
The court concluded that asking motorists for personal donations “poses no greater threat to traffic safety than engaging in the same conduct for other” purposes that are permitted under the law.
The state Legislature could change the law or pass a new one aimed to protect public safety on the roads, “but it must do so in a way that does not impermissibly burden protected speech,” the court said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts challenged the ordinance in a 2019 lawsuit accusing Fall River of aggressive enforcement. The group represented two homeless men who were accused of violating the law more than 40 times by Fall River police.
“We will respect the Court’s ruling,” Fall River Police Chief Jeffrey Cardoza said in a statement. “I would suggest that if people want to help the homeless, they can donate to many of our local charities”.
The ACLU of Massachusetts urged law enforcement agencies across the state to take heed of the decision.
“This ruling is timely, as a growing number of Massachusetts residents may need to rely on support from the public to make ends meet in the face of our current economic downturn,” said Ruth Bourquin, senior and managing attorney of the group.
The civil rights group said similar “anti-panhandling” ordinances in Worcester and Lowell were ruled unconstitutional in recent years.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)