EDITOR'S DESK: A conversation with the ACLUBy Kenyon Jordan
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Denver American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was kind enough to spend about a half-hour on the phone with me.
He said I was being "hostile" at one point, but he took all my questions and did not hang up on me. I agreed that maybe I was not the paragon of tranquility, but I also suggested that maybe he wasn't used to facing hard questions from the media.
What prompted the call was the pressure that the ACLU is applying to the Colorado Springs City Attorney's Office about our panhandling laws, or rather what used to be our panhandling laws. Thanks to the ACLU and some weirdly
That's not to say that they were the most amazing laws to begin with. Just for grins, let's look at them. In the City Code is a heading, Solicitation Prohibited: 9.2.111. Maybe the text should have just stopped there. Some of us might have liked that. But… no. There's a lot more under that heading, consisting of definitions and restrictions that essentially present three types of solicitation:
– “Aggressive” (defined as various types of pushiness that used to be banned altogether, but not anymore, at least in several cases, thanks to the suspensions).
– Active (technically defined by that one word, “soliciting,” which is when someone is holding a sign and/or asking for stuff - note that this also could include things like a Girl Scout Cookie table). 9.2.111 restricts where and when this can happen, or at least it once did.
– “Passive” (also when someone is holding a sign, the only difference being that the person is silent and motionless). But wait, 9.2.111 defines that as not soliciting, which means it's fully protected by the U.S. Consitution's First Amendment and is thus allowed almost anywhere in public.
Are we there yet?
We didn't go through all the above detail in my fun chat with Silverstein. I only dived into those city ordinances here to see if I could actually explain them and whether, in the process, they make any sense. I think the answer to both is no.
In any case, that was one aspect that he and I agreed on - that those laws are problematic. The Westside Pioneer news article, including a list of the suspended laws, can be found at this link.
But let's get to the part that led to the charge of hostility. See, there's this thing about editing a community newspaper. It means that you care about where you live. You appreciate what makes it strong and fun. I see community everyday on the Westside - the families, the business owners, the working people, the volunteers, and yes, the cops.
So that's what really bothered me in that phone call - finding out first-hand how unimportant our community is to the ACLU in its seemingly relentless quest to protect the rights of people who want to live off the bounty we create but have no interest in contributing to it.
In fact, from the ACLU vantage point, it can be argued that the community is the enemy. In our conversation, Silverstein referred to panhandlers as downtrodden folks making “peaceful, polite, non-threatening requests for charity.” I'm sorry, but after so many years of this activity in our midst, such a romantic description just doesn't fly. Local residents have long since drawn the connection between panhandlers and the messy camps by the creek, generally populated by drug/alcohol addicts, the mentally ill, convicted sex offenders and/or people who choose that lifestyle because they like it. Merchants say they're losing shoppers. Families complain about the influence on children. Various people are afraid to use the local trails. The Old Colorado City History Center was trashed again this summer by vagrants. And cops do their best to bust the law-breakers.
Perhaps the biggest enemies to the ACLU are local law enforcement and Westside residential and business leaders, who have organized the "It's OK to Say No" campaign, which urges compassionate folks to give to charities that help down-and-outers (actually in an astonishing number of ways), instead of to panhandlers themselves.
I realize there are many citizens who want to believe the ACLU narrative and who may feel good about giving somebody at a street corner a fiver, but as they drive home with that self-congratulatory glow, that recipient may already be on his way to the liquor store, seeking another kind of glow.
And let's not forget the type of panhandler for whom sad-eyed sign-holding is a daily job. I've heard from multiple sources there's good money in that. One woman around here had a sign for years saying she was pregnant and needed help.
When I brought up such points to Silverstein, he showed no interest. He kept turning the issue back to the First Amendment. As if that was what James Madison had in mind when he and fellow patriots were hammering out the Bill of Rights. What a country we would have had back then if this sign-holding crowd was in the numbers they are now. I can picture them during the Revolutionary War - instead of fighting the British for taking away their freedom, they'd have gone home crying to write “Anything will help” on signs to hold up in Concord Square.
But in this modern era, Silverstein knows he can sway most judges to the cause of panhandlers by repeatedly describing them as “poor” and “homeless” and by accusing the city's cops of “targeting” them (and he does just that in his September letter putting pressure on the City Attorney's Office).
Maybe some good will come of all this. Maybe the city will write better ordinances. Maybe, if there is any truth in the ACLU allegations against the city, those wrongs will be corrected. But for now, thanks to the suspended panhandling restrictions, it's open season on the everyday citizens of this city. And, based on the way the courts are ruling nationwide, any new laws will likely give the homeless crowd more leeway than ever.
Hey, have you decided who you like for president yet?
(Posted 10/31/15; Opinion: Editor's Desk)
Kenyon Jordan is the editor of the Westside Pioneer.