On Wednesday, August 8, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty along with three individual plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the City of Greensboro alleging that the plaintiffs’ First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights were violated by the passage of the aggressive solicitation ordinance.
The plaintiffs are being represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid of North Carolina.
The City of Greensboro will likely hire an outside law firm to represent it.
No one has been arrested or charged with violating the ordinance passed on July 24, but the plaintiffs are claiming that the passage of the ordinance violates their constitutional rights.
The Greensboro City Council was earlier told that if it passed the aggressive panhandling ordinance on June 21 and enacted it into law, the city would be sued the next day. The response from the city was to delay considering the ordinance, hire outside counsel and hold five public forums on panhandling and solicitation.
All that resulted in a new ordinance largely written by the outside attorneys from Parker Poe, which outlaws panhandling in city-owned parking decks and parking lots as well as harassment. The City Council also passed that ordinance by a 5-to-4 vote at the July 24 meeting, but for an ordinance to go into effect it has to pass with at least six affirmative votes or be passed twice at two different meetings by a simple majority.
It was after the Parker Poe ordinance failed to get enough votes to be enacted into law that the City Council decided to pass the aggressive panhandling ordinance for the second time, so it would become law. The council had passed the aggressive panhandling ordinance in May by a 5-to-4 vote, so it had not become law.
The 5-to-4 votes all had the same line up, with Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilmembers Justin Outling, Tammi Thurm, Nancy Hoffmann and Marikay Abuzuaiter voting in favor and Councilmembers Sharon Hightower, Michelle Kennedy, Goldie Wells and Yvonne Johnson voting in opposition.
Outling on Wednesday, August 8, said about the lawsuit, “It’s advocacy and interest groups being advocacy and interest groups. They are doing what their job is, just like the City Council is doing what its job is to protect the people of the community from being harassed.” Outling is an attorney with Brooks Pierce.
Outling noted that for years several cities in North Carolina have had essentially the same ordinance as the one Greensboro passed and they haven’t been sued. He said, “This isn’t anything new. The fact that they are suing Greensboro is a tactical decision they are making.”
Outling said that these groups had been given the opportunity to propose their own ordinance but had declined. He said that the city had made the effort to be engaged with these groups and the result was they sued the city without making an effort to work out the differences outside of court.
Vaughan said, “Obviously we plan on repealing and replacing the ordinance with another one that we were working on with the ACLU.”
“I don’t see that we are restricting anyone’s free speech. Neither of the ordinances say that you can’t solicit. They’re just about aggressive behavior.”
She noted that the Parker Poe ordinance was more about aggressive behavior after “the ask.” She said, “I think most people agree that once people say no that should be the end of it.”
Vaughan said that rather than spending money on a lawsuit, it seemed like both time and money could be better spent on working together on a better ordinance.
Outling also said, “This is gamesmanship. This is what attorneys and interest groups do at times.”
He said, “Our concern is providing a safe environment for everyone – city residents and non-residents alike. We don’t want people to be harassed.”
Outling added that although this was an issue, it wasn’t the most important issue facing the City Council, but it needed to be addressed so the City Council could get back to work on bringing more jobs to the city and increasing wages.