Panhandling could become more visible in the Tri-Cities.
A Kennewick law banning panhandling at some intersections is likely unconstitutional following a pair of court rulings expanding free speech rights to noncommercial signs.
Three years ago, Kennewick adopted codes to ban panhandling at intersections where there is no safe place for vehicles to pull to the side to interact with panhandlers.
In 2013, Police Chief Ken Hohenberg said the change had the desired outcome: The new law cut down on panhandling at major intersections such as the intersections of Highway 395 and Kennewick Avenue, Highway 395 and Clearwater Avenue, and Columbia Drive and Washington Street.
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The Kennewick City Council received an update on the legal status of its code during a Dec. 13 workshop. It will consider repealing its panhandling ban in 2017.
This summer, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down a nearly identical law in Lakewood, saying that city’s “begging” ordinance is an unconstitutional restriction on First Amendment free speech rights.
The Washington ruling followed a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., the nation’s highest court said regulating the content of signs must serve a compelling government interest, a legal threshold known as “strict scrutiny.”
In the case, the pastor of Good News Presbyterian, an itinerant church, sued the town because the church’s temporary directional signs were held to different standards than other signs based solely on their content. Namely, political signs could be larger.
The high court agreed, saying such regulations must be scrutinized under the First Amendment.
The New York Times, in a memorable phrase that’s circulated among municipal attorneys, said strict scrutiny is a nearly impossible test to pass.
“Strict scrutiny, like a Civil War stomach wound, is generally fatal.”
In light of the Reed and Lakewood rulings, the city of Kennewick is planning to take a larger look at the rules for noncommercial signs in the coming year.
Richland considered adopting anti-panhandling rules in 2015. The council elected not to pursue the matter after the Reed opinion was issued, said Heather Kintzley, the city’s attorney.
The Pasco City Council voted to ban panhandling on city streets as well as private property in 2013. It was not immediately clear if it intends to review its rules in light of the court rulings.