A new legislative session is upon us, and that means a new series of opportunities for our state to make life even more difficult for the state’s poorest and most vulnerable. Specifically, legislation introduced Thursday targeting panhandlers and once again trying to outlaw panhandling. We thought this issue was authoritatively put to bed, as the courts have repeatedly held that asking for help is constitutionally protected free speech, and a few years ago, the City of Cranston was forced to settle with the ACLU, wasting taxpayer resources in court trying to take away people’s right to free speech. However, a few of this state’s most conservative Democrats seem determined to keep trying to strip this right away from Rhode Islanders.
This year’s anti-panhandling bill, H5330, was introduced and, less than a week later, is to be heard in House Judiciary Committee this coming Tuesday (perhaps to try to avoid scrutiny and criticism from community organizations.) Although the bill’s sponsors claim that the bill has NOTHING to do with panhandling, and the bill’s text specifically states that it is NOT an “anti-panhandling” bill, it is clear both from the text of the law and the past public comments of its sponsors on this issue that this is simple Orwellian doublespeak. Its sponsors are crudely and transparently trying to forestall the inevitable legal challenge to this law by claiming that it does not prevent people from exercising their constitutional right to ask for help at all! Instead it simply imposes fines ($100 for a first offense!) to anyone who actually gives money to a panhandler from their vehicle.
However, to ensure that police and other privileged, state-sanctioned panhandlers will still be able to exercise their free speech rights, the law allows for municipalities to issue permits to panhandlers (up to two times a year), so long as the town or city approves of them and they have some sort of liability insurance protection. Giving money from one’s car to an unpermitted, unsanctioned panhandler carries the aforementioned fine, assessed to the motorist, not the panhandler. How exactly the motorist would have any way of knowing whether a particular panhandler was or was not state sanctioned and permitted is unclear.
The bill also makes use of an offensive, dishonest substitution tactic. In order to maintain the transparent fiction that this is not an anti-panhandling law – which it most definitely and inarguably is – the bill claims that it is doing this for reasons of traffic safety. It then provides statistics on roadway crashes for the entire country that have nothing to do with panhandling! The sponsors of this legislation do not even point to a single accident in Rhode Island that has been caused as the result of panhandling. It would be exactly as honest, and make just as much sense, to say that since hundreds of thousands die in hospitals in America every year, we should ban all hospitals. The bill’s primary sponsor, Representative Charlene Lima (Democrat, District 14, Cranston), insisted on the Dan Yorke Show earlier this week that this was a growing problem, but when asked to provide so much as a single example of this “problem” she cited a non-traffic related robbery and murder in another state. Perhaps someone should explain to Representative Lima and her cosponsors that robbery and homicide are already illegal in Rhode Island, as it seems they may be unaware of this.
One of the most humane acts is to directly assist a person in need. Anti-panhandling laws separate people from the authentic experience of openly giving and receiving. Unjust and cruel laws like this one separate us from each other and are counterproductive to human character. Indeed, it could be argued that this law infringes on religious expression by outlawing what some religions consider a holy act (as will doubtlessly will be so argued, in court, at taxpayer expense, if this bill somehow becomes law). We hope that the undemocratic intent of this heartless and cruel bill will fail, and that despite attempts to pass this bill through committee quickly under the radar, it will be met in force again on Tuesday by community organizations who will call the sponsors to account for this latest attempt to strip Rhode Island’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens of their constitutional rights.
“It may be, that in the sight of Heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions… Oh God! to hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol