Jeff Grey is a 1st amendment auditor. He goes to different PUBLIC locations with a sign that reads "god bless the homeless veterans". He does not ask for money but simply states the same thing the sign reads. Many times when the police show up. They claim he is panhandling to which he states that even if he were panhandling, it is protected under the 1st amendment and has been taken to the supreme court.

Video example of one of his interactions.

  • Is panhandling protected under the 1st amendment?
  • Are city/county ordinances that ban panhandling illegal?

1 Answer 1


In Washington, at the state level, there is no law against "panhandling". I found a small town that has an ordinance related to "panhandling", which is defined:

“Panhandling” and all derivative forms of “solicit” mean to ask, beg, or plead, whether orally or in a written or printed manner, for the purpose of immediately receiving contributions, alms, charity, or gifts of items of value for oneself or another person.

There are various prohibitions. One is based on designated places (8.12.030(1))

It is unlawful for any person to solicit another person within 15 feet of:

a. An automated teller machine; or b. The entrance of a building, unless the solicitor has written permission from the owner or occupant; or c. An exterior public pay telephone; or d. A self-service car wash, unless the panhandler has written permission from the owner or occupant of the business; or e. A self-service fuel pump, unless the panhandler has written permission from the owner or occupant of the business; or f. A public transportation stop; or g. Any parked vehicle as occupants of such vehicle enter or exit such vehicle.

Also, (2)

It is unlawful for a person to panhandle from another person:

a. On private property, unless the panhandler has written permission from the owner or occupant; b. After sunset or before sunrise; c. In any public transportation facility or vehicle.

8.12.040 then outlaws panhandling by coersion:

It is unlawful for a person to panhandle by coercion

Coersion is a technical term: it means, in that town,

  1. To approach or speak to a person in such a manner as would cause a reasonable person to believe that the person is being threatened with either imminent bodily injury or the commission of a criminal act upon the person or another person or upon property in the person’s immediate possession;

  2. To persist in panhandling after the person solicited has given a negative response;

  3. To block, either individually or as part of a group of persons, the passage of a solicited person;

  4. To engage in conduct that would reasonably be construed as intended to compel or force a solicited person to accede to demands;

  5. To use violent or threatening gestures toward a person;

  6. Willfully providing or delivering, or attempting to provide or deliver, unrequested or unsolicited services or products with a demand or exertion of pressure for payment in return; or

  7. To use profane, offensive, or abusive language; this is inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction.

If you replace "asking for money" with "advocate a political position", much of this law would be unconstitutional, for example the "designated place" parts which describe pretty much "where other people might be, in that town". The coercion parts might pass muster except for #2 and #7.

One might argue that begging for money is not the kind of viewpoint-expression that the First Amendment protects, but in Schaumberg v. Citizens for a Better Environment the court held that "Charitable appeals for funds, on the street or door to door, involve a variety of speech interests -- communication of information, dissemination and propagation of views and ideas, and advocacy of causes -- that are within the First Amendment's protection". However, in International Society for Krishna Consciousness v. Lee allowed prohibition of panhandling in the airport. But, crucial to their finding is that an airport of not a public forum, whereas the streets of Sultan are a public forum. One factor that distinguishes classical panhandling from other kinds of solicitations is that in the ISKCON and Better Environment cases, the purpose of the solicitation was to support a religion / viewpoint, which is not the case with the usual panhandler. But then, the distinction "money for others" vs. "money for me" is the embodiment of a viewpoint difference, and the First Amendment protects the "money for me" viewpoint just as it protects the "money for others" viewpoint.

I suspect that if someone had standing and the legal wherewithal to challenge that law that the ordinance would be struck down at least in part (especially clause 2 or "coercion"; and all of the public-property designated places.

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